Scotland’s council umbrella body has announced it is setting up a review panel to take a closer look at the role of local government in Scotland. Speaking exclusively to Holyrood about the new commission, Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) president David O’Neill said the step is “unprecedented” and will bring together senior councillors, members of civic Scotland and a range of experts to discuss the future of local government in Scotland.
Taking advantage of discussions around the independence referendum, COSLA believes this is the perfect time to focus the debate on local government and in turn, onto local communities. With the hopes of reporting their findings in the spring, the commission will take evidence at home and abroad on various different topics.
O’Neill said now is the time for the debate about Scotland’s future to focus on the questions local people, not politicians, are asking. He added that regardless of the outcome of the referendum, the status quo will not prevail in Scotland but he believes there has been “very little” consideration of what this will mean for local people and local decision making.
He added: “I think we have a duty to turn that around. That is why, as the president of COSLA, I am taking the unprecedented move of bringing together some of Scotland’s most senior councillors, wider civic society and a range of experts to understand why local services and local accountability matter.
“Most importantly, the commission will be listening to the views of people and communities across Scotland and setting out what it would take to put stronger local democracy at the heart of Scotland’s constitutional future. In fact, when you speak to people in local communities, the real story is not about the internal working of Holyrood or Westminster. It is about the local services communities need and about giving people a real say about what matters locally to them.”
O’Neill is unsurprised the wider debate on Scotland’s future has often failed to interest some parts of society, as “it is hard for people to see what positive difference could be made to real lives”. He added while the subject of reorganisation of local authorities will probably come up during the commission’s work, “it is not about numbers” and that the important debate will be on “what you do, not how many of you are doing it”.
He added: “The first thing to say about this commission is to stress what it is not about. It is not a power grab from local government to see more services and more powers being handled by local government. What it is, is a belief that if you have services which have controlled and delivered locally, you get a better outcome for our communities. You see a whole raft of national agencies, for example, which if you look at their annual reports, they do indeed deliver what the Scottish Government asks them to do but if you go into local communities and ask what these agencies do, you seldom get a positive answer.
“If you look at developed western democracies, almost anywhere but particularly western Europe and Scandinavia, they have a far more decentralised system, to the extent that the bulk of services are delivered and controlled locally. What the commission has been set up to do is to get people with knowledge and experience to sit down and look at these issues and gather evidence to see what we think is the best form of governance for Scotland.
“It is not about grabbing power for local government but it is about taking power as close as you can to the communities and the people it is there to serve. It would also mean that if we see more devolution in Scotland, it doesn’t stop in Edinburgh and it doesn’t stop in the council chamber. It goes right down to the heart of your communities. It is a genuine desire for localism and it isn’t the Eric Pickles type of localism.
“We’ve got a good bunch of people involved from all walks of life [on the commission], from civic Scotland, local government, the churches, voluntary sector, young people, etc. There is a wealth of experience and ability on this commission.”
O’Neill believes effective local democracy is fundamental to the kind of place Scots want to live in and the opportunities and challenges faced in different parts of the country require local choices and local accountability.
He said: “We have already heard compelling cases for the huge benefits that more local approaches would deliver for our islands and our cities. This commission will build on that thinking and make the case for what can be achieved for all of our communities. COSLA has already begun to think about those issues, we have developed a vision that focuses on improving local democracy as the route to better outcomes and we are putting this at the heart of all our work. But we have more to do to expose our thinking to others, and test the case for the principles it sets out.
“There’s a lot to play for and that is why this commission is all about real life and not just ideology. I want to deliver real change as well as influencing change elsewhere.”
O’Neill has also stated that over the decades, Scotland has moved away from the local aspect of “almost everything” and that looking across Europe, the opposite is often true. He said: “The bottom line is that local matters and it is valued within out communities. Making Scotland a fairer, healthier and wealthier place will not be achieved from the top down – we know that trying to do so simply doesn’t work.
“The reality is that improving lives in our communities means empowering local democracy and letting local people decide on their own priorities, their services and their spending. Nothing else works and that is why we must have local services and local decisions.”
In March, COSLA set the groundwork for the commission by announcing that a “strong and unchallengeable” description of local government and its services must be embedded in Scotland’s constitutional future. At the organisation’s annual conference, O’Neill, who has led COSLA since June 2012, set out a new vision for local government in Scotland and said councils need a binding understanding that the proper relationship between local and national government is one which devolves power and resources, and that frees up councils from “unnecessary statutory duties and central direction”.
Speaking to Holyrood in the summer, he described this vision as a way forward, allowing COSLA to deal with the reality of today’s problems, to be sustainable in the medium term and provide the basis for an even more expansive and important future. O’Neill also said the vision is based on the principles of the Christie Commission – doing things with communities, not to them; doing things in partnership; creating a situation where our institutions in Scotland are so confident of the way they are underpinned and supported that working across agency boundaries becomes easier not harder.
Speaking about the committion, Minister for Local Government and Planning, Derek Mackay said: “As the First Minister set out in the Lerwick Declaration we support local decisions making just as we believe that the people who live and work in Scotland are best placed to make decisions about our future. The establishment of this commission, is an excellent counterpart to the work we are doing on the Our Islands, Our Future proposal from Scotland’s island communities and the wider opportunity presented by the referendum to explore how local democracy can be improved.
“Local democracy has been strengthened by this Government’s actions since 2007, such as favourable funding settlements for local government, increased local autonomy from the removal of ring-fencing and strengthened community planning, and will be enhanced further by the forthcoming community empowerment and renewal bill and wider reforms to improve local outcomes.”