Taking stock: interview with Elma Murray
Having passed the role to Glasgow City Council’s George Black in November, Murray has had the chance to think back over her time at the helm of SOLACE Scotland.
“I said at the start of my time as chair that it was a real privilege and it has been. Being able to take on this role is probably one of the best opportunities I’ve had in my career,” Murray told Holyrood.
SOLACE Scotland, while being an important component of the UK framework, operates largely independently as the representative body for senior managers working within local government.
Murray, who is chief executive of North Ayrshire Council, added: “From a personal viewpoint, being SOLACE Scotland chair for a year has been very different from anything else I do in my day to day job.
It’s important to make sure that everyone’s views are heard and considered, and that we’re able to reach, wherever possible, a consensus in terms of having a position that the branch might want to take on particular issues. That’s a set of skills I’ve honed over the past year.”
Two of the big issues Murray has worked on over the past 12 months are council finances and welfare reform. Both have presented unique challenges to all 32 of Scotland’s councils.
She said: “Welfare reform has featured in almost every single SOLACE branch meeting we’ve had over the year and the lead for that, David Dorward [chief executive of Dundee City Council], has done an outstanding job in making sure we’re all up to date about what’s happening.
“Welfare reform directly affects the people and communities in our local areas. As a branch, our focus has been to look at the longer-term impact of welfare reform. This means we’re managing not just the immediate problems of there being less money in communities and people having difficulties paying their rent but also thinking about the longer-term position around getting more people into work and sustainable employment.
“A lot of the people affected are our most vulnerable people. A big job for councils is to help them understand what’s happening and what we can do to help them. We have done a lot of work knocking on doors and seeing people, helping them do calculations, explaining to them about the financial support the council can give and where else they can apply to for support.”
In terms of the council finances, Murray admits it’s been “another challenging year”. She told Holyrood some councils are now setting two-year budgets. She said: “I think there will be more councils trying to set budgets over a longer period of time. Most of us profile our budgets and set indicative levels. A number of councils have now started much longer-term financial planning, with five and 10-year plans. Looking back a few years ago, that wouldn’t have been particularly usual. Much of that is about managing expectations, about helping elected members and communities to understand just how challenging the next few years are going to be and therefore while things might not feel too bad in a number of cases this year, there’s lots more we need to do.
“One of the big challenges around the financial situation is to try to change the focus from one where people are continually thinking about reductions in services and cuts and almost turning that on its head. An example from my council is over £300 million is spent on local service delivery, so we have to ask what’s the best form of local service delivery in our area – what are the priorities, what matters most to us.
“We are all much more conscious about mapping out the way ahead and helping councillors and communities to think hard about what their long-term priorities are. The starting point is to look at the financial implications over the longer term and ask what does that then mean for the type of communities we’re going to have and what services we’re going to need to support them.
“It’s about looking at what we can change so we’re not spending money on the things which don’t get a return for local people. Prevention and early intervention are very important. In the time I’ve been in local government, this has taken off as being a priority and everyone is focused on it. There won’t be a council now which doesn’t talk about prevention and early intervention, and who have a number of strands which are trying to make that happen much more rapidly.”
The independence referendum has also been on the agenda for SOLACE Scotland during Murray’s time at the helm. While the organisation does not take a position on the outcome of the vote, she believes it is very important to put forward a view for the best possible Scotland for the people each chief executive works for.
“While SOLACE does not have a position in terms of what the outcome of the referendum should be, we obviously give a lot of thought to what might happen after the referendum. As senior professionals in public sector Scotland, we feel we’ve got views about what the future of Scotland might be like. We’ve been doing a lot of thinking about that,” Murray added. SOLACE Scotland has also been discussing how they should engage in the debate around the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities’ (COSLA) Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy, which aims to consider what it will take to put local democracy at the heart of Scotland’s future.
However, Murray believes it is important SOLACE can feed into the broader national debate. She said: “We have very strong views on the importance of communities, putting place first and making sure that anything that happens in Scotland is developed from the point of view of what’s right for a local community rather than necessarily something which needs to happen across the whole country. Also we feel strongly that we need to look harder at the link between how local government is funded and our accountability for delivering services, and making much stronger links there as well.”