Man from the council: Pat Watters
After being president of local authority umbrella body, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA), for more than 11 years and a councillor for 30, Watters stepped down from both COSLA and South Lanarkshire Council last May. As the man who steered the umbrella body through some tough times, Watters is in an ideal position to look back over the past 14 years.
“I was a latter-day convert to devolution,” he tells Holyrood, “when the Parliament was being formed, I was convinced it was the way to go but I would say that prior to that, I was not a big supporter of devolution.” Watters thought it was perhaps “a step too far”, another level of bureaucracy between the people and government. However, he added: “I have to say that I changed my tune before the election and campaigned quite vigorously for the Scottish Parliament. I have been pleasantly surprised in the sense that the main change for local government was accessibility to our colleagues in parliament. With accessibility came changes to how we operated with each other.
“I have said before, prior to there being a Scottish Parliament, when local government was having its maybe once a year meeting with the Scottish Office, we’d have a delegation of five or six councillors and senior officers traipsing down to London, taking us a day and a half to two days, all for a meeting which would last an hour. We felt that that was not the way to do business, in other words, our contact with our parliamentary colleagues was always short. Having to go down to London all the time to deal with these things and being given a slot of an hour to do it, was not exactly dealing with things in a proper manner. With the Scottish Parliament, the access to government changed dramatically for us in local government and with that change and with the regular meetings, came a building of a relationship on how we could manage things better.
“With any change there are some people who are reluctant. They get comfortable with what is happening, even if they don’t particularly like what’s going on, and are fearful of what change might bring.
“We already have and always have had a separate legal system and a separate education system, they have been successful and what we needed to do was build on that. On the doorsteps, it was really quite positive. You still had people who thought it was a waste of time to actually build another tier of government but combining that with local government reorganisation, those authorities being all purpose, it was right that we had that tier. In planning matters, for instance, local people need the right to go beyond the council, to someone else, having to go to Westminster for that was probably not the right step. Therefore having the Scottish Government seemed like a natural progression of how we do democracy within our country.”
Watters is credited with helping to forge the historic Concordat agreement with the minority SNP Government in 2007.
He said: “You need to go before the 2007 election to look at what was happening with local government and the Scottish Government prior to that. ere were regular spats with the Scottish Government, sometimes very public spats, at that time. The Scottish Government was still finding its feet, we had seen local government reorganisation a few years before that and we were still finding our feet as well. Prior to the election in 2007, the leadership in COSLA at that time decided we needed a different approach. Being continually at loggerheads with each other – we didn’t think it was delivering for local government the way we wanted it. We took the decision we needed a different approach on how we were doing things.
“It just so happened that that decision coincided with the 2007 election where we had a minority government elected for Scotland. When we decided to do the negotiations with the Government, we set down some very clear criteria about what we’d want to see. We wanted more autonomy for local government, we wanted more control of our own budgets, we wanted less penalties. As part of the negotiations, as well as having ringfencing practically done away with, we agreed that we would move to single outcome agreements and I think that is delivering real benefits, not just for government but communities as well. We also got the agreement that we would save the finances the Government was telling us to save but we would retain those savings and reinvest them into frontline services. at was a big shift for us. Like anything else, if you control the purse strings, you control the organisation. Prior to 2007, government controlled our finances and we had a budget at that time, probably £10-£11 billion, maybe touching £12 at times and I think 60 per cent of that we were told how to spend. With any organisation, if you don’t have total control of your budget, there’s a risk.
“When it came to tight financial times and we were looking for savings, if you couldn’t touch 60 per cent of what you had, the cuts went on the other 40 per cent you had. Some of that 40 per cent was vital to communities and having that freed up and being able to look at our whole budget and how we would manage that in tough times, was vitally important to our financial planning.”
Watters also cites the move to three-year budgeting as very important in allowing local government to plan more effectively. More recently, as the financial downturn has forced many councils and public sector organisations to tighten their belts, policy makers have been looking to public sector reform.
The Commission on the Future Delivery of Public Services published their recommendations in 2011. Watters said the Christie recommendations were extremely refreshing for local government. He added: “I have to say they were probably very much in line with local government’s thinking and had been for a number of years. We in local government were not against reform but what our argument was if we were going to see reform, we had to take the opportunity to look at the whole of the public sector and not just bits of it. There was a recognition that things were going to get tough and there was no silver bullet to solve the financial problems we were seeing right across the public sector.
“There are some really good examples of partnership working which are well established and have been operating for a number of years. Personally speaking, I think what we’ve done is scratch the surface. e opportunity for health and local government to work better to deliver within communities is tremendous. We’ve only scratched the surface on how we can work better together on the whole of the public sector.
“The Christie Commission was a real turning point for the whole of the public sector. We were doing community planning before Christie but what we were doing was playing at it. We were focussing on the problems, rather than the opportunities.
“Community planning has been a major input but that comes out of the single outcome agreement which we agreed with government. The Government is saying they are serious about community planning and saying they will legislate to make it a responsibility on everyone, the whole of the public sector, whereas up until very recently, the responsibility was on local government. Prevention is far better than cure.”