Following months of negative headlines and wild speculation about its future, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities’ (COSLA) conference in St Andrews last week was widely anticipated by those in thelocal government sphere.
In his address to delegates, president David O’Neill warned councils of the possible repercussions of “spitting the dummy out” and forgetting local authorities are there to serve the “common good”.
Currently seven local authorities – Aberdeen, Dumfries and Galloway, Invercylde, West Lothian, Renfrewshire, South Lanarkshire and Glasgow – have issued notice to quit COSLA in April 2015.
O’Neill said: “At a time when public confidence in politicians is not high – although confidence in local politicians remains higher than in anybody else – what does it say about us if our way of working is to be consensual only up to the point where we don’t individually get what we want and at that point we spit the dummy out and threaten never to speak to our political colleagues again? Furthermore, if one of our colleagues does that, what does it say about the rest of us if rather than encouraging them back into the fold we just say ‘if you’re leaving, we’re going as well’.
“It seems to me that COSLA’s current difficulties are caused by too many people forgetting the founding principle that drives any national/local government association anywhere in Europe.
“That principle is there is a common good for local government and therefore local people and it can only be protected, enhanced and developed by consensus, joint working, mature discussion and decision making, and when it comes right down to it a willingness to accept the fact that a common good is just that – something that is the best for everybody, not just the best for a for a few.”
This was a strong message to the Labour-led councils who have chosen to serve notice to quit. A few weeks ago, Glasgow City Council leader Gordon Matheson wrote in the Herald: “History is also passing COSLA by as creative developments across local government result in increased diversification. The potential city deal for Glasgow city region and the assertion of Our Islands, Our Future are healthy examples. While politely supporting these initiatives from the sidelines, COSLA isn’t a player. Instead it’s stuck in a different age with a curious and anachronistic purpose: to seek compromise among councils in the interest of a stultifying and artificial unity.”
At the heart of all the current commotion in COSLA is money. Local government is operating in severely straightened times and the situation is not going to change any time soon. There are two possible ways of calculating how much money councils are likely to get from the Government next year. The so-called ‘flat cash settlement’ means they’ll essentially get the same amount; or changes could be made to some of the factors which feed into how the distribution formula works. Council leaders at COSLA have previously backed the former; however, figures released by the Scottish Government suggest most would benefit from the other option. Earlier this year, the Scottish Parliament approved over £10.6bn of funding to deliver local services across Scotland, with extra support for students and businesses. The 2015/16 local government finance settlement represents flat cash with extra money for new responsibilities. COSLA leaders had previously taken the view that the needs-based indicators should not be uprated and that all 32 councils should receive the same share of funding in 2015/16 as they will receive in 2014/15 – meaning the latest figures on populations and deprivation would not be applied.
Meanwhile, a constitutional review is currently under way within COSLA. One of the key proposals is to shift decision-making powers from the Labour-dominated monthly council leaders’ meeting, to its quarterly convention, which is based on delegates. The findings of the review are expected in the summer.
When Inverclyde Council made the decision as part of the council’s budget announcement, its leader, Councillor Stephen McCabe, said: “The constitutional review which was approved by COSLA is due to report in June 2014. If this results in a significant transfer of power from the leaders’ group to the convention, this would seriously reduce the influence of this council and lead us to question the value to Inverclyde of our continuing membership of COSLA. Therefore we are giving COSLA the statutory notice of our intention to leave the organisation.”
But should the review report in June with a different recommendation; the council has left the door open to withdraw its notice to quit COSLA.
So what is the Scottish Government’s response to the situation? Up until recently, it had remained fairly neutral on the subject but Derek Mackay made a strong statement to conference on Thursday, which caused many ripples of discontent among Labour delegates.
Mackay said: “Government is flexible and responsive to the needs of local government. These are challenging times for COSLA and we recognise that councils will bethinking about their relationship with COSLA and with Scottish Government.
“In response to the president’s speech, can I say on behalf of Scottish Government, that we respect local government and will be willing to engage with any individual local authority, but when it comes to actual negotiations with local government, we will only negotiate with COSLA within that partnership approach which we’ve employed over the past number of years.”
During a heated question and answer session following his speech, Mackay said local government in Scotland would be “in a weaker position if it wasn’t able to speak with one voice”. When questioned further, the minister refused to withdraw his statement but he said there is still a year before all is decided at COSLA, before reiterating that local government is stronger as part of one organisation. He said: “At the moment we’re in the very fortunate position that we’ve got 32 out of 32 councils part of COSLA and I think it’s to the health of local government if it stays that way. This is a matter for each individual council but in terms of the negotiation, to have a whole range of streams of negotiations underway at the one time, I don’t know if that would be too productive for individual local authorities.”
We’ll have to wait until April next year before we know if Mackay will make good on his announcement but the message to the seven Labour councils is clear – game on.