Just a few years before 1999, local government went through a major overhaul of its own. Today’s Scottish local government structure is a result of 1996’s reorganisation, the legislative basis for which was the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1994. Prior to 1929, local government north of the border consisted largely of royal burghs, small towns and villages that organised basic services within communities. is was first reorganised in 1929, when a complex structure consisting of five kinds of local government areas was established.
This remained unchanged until 1975, following the report of the Wheatley Commission, whose proposals were re ected in the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973. Post 1975, Scottish local government became a two-tier system, consisting of nine regional councils, 53 district councils and three all-purpose island councils.
The 1996 reorganisation resulted in the nine regions and 53 districts being abolished, although the three island councils remained unchanged.
The district councils and regional councils were replaced with 29 single tier (or unitary) bodies to provide a more economic, cohesive, accountable and e ective system. All 32 councils are responsible for delivering services such as education, leisure and recreation, planning and building standards, social services, housing, street cleaning, and refuse collection.
According to the Scottish Office, the post- 1975 system led to confusion, with the public being unclear about the roles and responsibilities of the two tiers of local government. It was claimed that the two-tier system resulted in a loss of accountability, some degree of waste and duplication of effort, and that some regional authorities were regarded as being too remote from their communities.
With devolution, Scottish local government suddenly had more and better access to ministers, instead of councillors and offcials being forced to make the trip down to London to address problems, Edinburgh was far more accessible.
According to a report commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in 2002, Scottish local government played a central role in the campaign to secure a Parliament. It stated: “In the main, the research found that devolution had significantly improved matters by bringing national government closer, geographically, to local government. In addition to being physically closer to local government, the research found that the Scottish Executive was perceived as more open and willing to listen to local government than the Scottish Office had been before devolution.
Moreover, the policy and legislative capacity that devolution brought created far greater opportunities to deal with Scotland’s problems and opportunities.
“The research highlighted the need for a political culture that was able and willing to overcome the remaining problems of distrust between and among Scotland’s public servants. While many had hoped devolution would produce a ‘new politics’, progress was limited and Scotland had yet to free itself from the ‘old politics’ of the past.” For Scotland’s council umbrella group, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA), devolution posed a new set of issues.
In 2000 and 2001, the organisation was rocked by bitter schisms which saw Glasgow, Falkirk and Clackmannanshire Councils temporarily leave COSLA and both the chief executive and president at the time also quit. The councils were unhappy about COSLA’s handling of the finance settlement from the Scottish Executive, and issues around membership fees. However, these problems were overcome and all three councils subsequently rejoined COSLA. By this stage Pat Watters was in the role of president, one he would hold for a historic three terms, with Rory Mair in the chief executive position.
Things have not been plain sailing for COSLA and Scottish ministers. The two frequently clashed, often publicly, over a variety of issues.
However, in 2007, with the formation of the SNP minority government at Holyrood, a new agreement was formed. The Concordat between the Scottish Government and COSLA was hailed as historic and set out a new way forward for local and central government. The Concordat states: “ is concordat sets out the terms of a new relationship between the Scottish Government and local government, based on mutual respect and partnership. It underpins the funding to be provided to local government over the period 2008-09 to 2010-11.
“The new relationship is represented by a package of measures. It is endorsed by both the Scottish ministers and by the COSLA presidential team. The package has been agreed within a tight financial context. Both sides believe that the proposals on offer, arrived at following detailed negotiation, represent the best outcome that can be achieved. They further believe that taken as a whole, the package will lead, over time, to significant benefits for users of local government services.”
The Concordat paved the way for single outcome agreements (SOAs), the removal of ringfencing, the right to retain efficiency savings and increased autonomy. Finance Secretary John Swinney said: “We are freeing local government to succeed, removing ringfencing and enabling councils to allocate resources according to local priorities and in line with a new performance framework. Our new arrangement with local government will help us to deliver on shared commitments including our promise to freeze the unfair council tax.”
However, despite this new way of working, problems have continued to arise. With the Concordat, councils had to sign up to a number of SNP policy pledges, including an aspiration to cut class sizes and provide free school meals.
In 2009, tensions erupted over class sizes, teacher numbers and the future model of education delivery. However, Watters summed it up at the time, in his typical incisive manner: “In any relationship you’re trying to develop, we’re not going to be skipping down Princes Street holding hands all the time. Our emphasis might be slightly different and that’s where the tensions develop. So we have to work these out. Problems are only there so we can find solutions. There is a solution to every problem that we’ve got. We’re delivering our side of the Concordat in areas that the Government were talking about, are we having a difficulty at the present time because of difficulties with the finances? Yes, we are.”
In these times of austerity, public sector reform remains top of the agenda for local government. In 2011, the Commission on the Future Delivery of Public Services, led by the late Dr Campbell Christie, was a major step forward. The Christie Commission, as it was otherwise known, set out a number of steps to reform which rang true in many parts of the public sector.
Christie wrote: “Our public services are now facing their most serious challenges since the inception of the welfare state. e demand for public services is set to increase dramatically over the medium term – partly because of demographic changes, but also because of our failure up to now to tackle the causes of disadvantage and vulnerability, with the result that huge sums have to be expended dealing with their consequences.
“This rising demand for public services will take place in an environment of constrained public spending. In the absence of a willingness to raise new revenue through taxation, public services will have to ‘achieve more with less’.
“Reforming the delivery of these services is not only a matter of fiscal necessity. We also have to implement reforms that improve the quality of public services to better meet the needs of the people and the communities they seek to support.
“If we are to have effective and sustainable public services capable of meeting the challenges ahead, the reform process must begin now.”
The commission set out four principles to inform the process: • Reforms must aim to empower individuals and communities receiving public services by involving them in the design and delivery of the services they use.
• Public service providers must be required to work much more closely in partnership, to integrate service provision and thus improve the outcomes they achieve • We must prioritise expenditure on public services which prevent negative outcomes from arising.
• And our whole system of public services – public, third and private sectors – must become more efficient by reducing duplication and sharing services wherever possible.
More recently, the Scottish Government and COSLA agreed Scotland’s first Statement of Ambition about how to improve the way local services are delivered. The statement, covering public services provided to communities by councils, the NHS, emergency services, and other public agencies, was the first step in a major review designed to put community planning partnerships at the centre of an outcomes approach to public services in Scotland.
Local Government Minister Derek Mackay said: “The Scottish Government’s response to the Christie Commission included a commitment to review community planning. We are, in collaboration with local government, delivering on that commitment. As evidence of that, I’m delighted that we have agreed this Statement of Ambition to set out our shared aims for effectively.
“Community planning stands or falls on whether it delivers better outcomes and it must keep up with the pace of financial pressures, changing demography and the growing social needs we face. Effective community planning needs greater integration of services, more focus on prevention and clearer accountability for partners.”
Watters, who stepped down from the COSLA president role in May last year, is currently chairing a review of community planning. COSLA’s new president is David O’Neill, a councillor who has represented the people of Irvine for the past 32 years and who served as leader of North Ayrshire Council for three terms.
Currently, Scotland is in the sixth year of a freeze on council tax payments. In February, local authorities confirmed that in setting their budgets for 2013-14, they have included full provision to deliver on the joint priority agreed with the Scottish Government to continue the council tax freeze. As agreed with COSLA, the package of measures, which includes maintaining teacher numbers in line with pupil numbers and securing places for all probationers under the teacher induction scheme, sees local authorities receive a at cash settlement for next year when compared on a like-with-like basis with current local authority funding. Local authorities also received an additional £23m from the Scottish Government to help fill the gap left by UK cuts to council tax benefit which is being transferred to local authorities at a reduced level.