Scotland Communities and society, Democracy, devolution and governance

2023 COSLA Conference – “No council is an island”


Jonathan Carr-West speaking on central and local relations at the COSLA Conference 2023

Spanning two days and located in the idyllic town of Crieff in Perth and Kinross, this year’s COSLA Conference and Exhibition presented a key opportunity for the Scottish local government sector to discuss the array of challenges facing the sector, as well as the tentative opportunities appearing from the Verity House Framework.

This article highlights some of the core themes from the 2023 COSLA Conference in Crieff, and re-caps Jonathan Carr-West’s presentation, speaking alongside Professor James Mitchell, on central and local government relations in Scotland and further afield.

Gloomy skies in Crieff did not reflect the mood of the conference. Credit@ThomasLynch
Gloomy skies in Crieff did not reflect the mood of the conference. Credit@ThomasLynch

Jonathan Carr-West – Central and local relations

As part of a new research project to mark LGIU’s 40th anniversary, I have interviewed more than 60 council leaders and chief executives across England and Scotland. It’s fair to say that the mood is pretty bleak. They are worried about financial sustainability, rising demand, increasing costs and a sometimes strained relationship with both Scottish and UK governments.

Looking south of the border, however, shows us that things can always be worse.

There are many things that could be said about the high-profile financial collapse of Birmingham City Council, but amongst other things, it’s the story of a failed relation between central and local government: failure of funding, failure of scrutiny, failure of interventions and failure of support.

Should we see Birmingham as a warning for the future? Scottish councils start in a different place, but they are subject to the same pressures, so as Audit Scotland recently warned, it would be complacent to assume that we won’t see any Section 114s in Scotland.

John Donne wrote that “no man is an island”, and no council is an island either.

This holds true in many ways. No council is an island because if councils fall over, the knock-on effects on the NHS, police and other public services will be catastrophic. No council is an island because they need to have relationships that enable them to collaborate, share and learn from each other. No council is an island because they all need to exist within a broader ecosystem of relationships, including with central governments.

And here, there are useful lessons we can take from elsewhere. At LGIU, we’ve been conducting comparative research on local government finance systems in Germany, Italy and Japan. This underlines the need to place local government within a stable constitutional structure. The German Basic Law creates a framework of self-administrative and subsidiarity.

You also need a place where local and central government can engage productively with each other. In Australia, the Albanese government has reinstated the Australian Council of Local Governments as a forum in which council leaders can engage with the PM and cabinet members. And, of course, in Scotland we have the Verity House Agreement. A clear statement of intent, which we all need to back up with real action and to stick with when times get tough.

These are some key takeaways:

  • Tough times are coming, and we need to be prepared.
  • Gestures matter not as an end but as a beginning.
  • You need relationships and structures.
  • Relationships get you through when the system comes under pressure and structures support you when relationships change.
  • We need to learn from what others are doing and not be precious about it while recognising that this learning is hard and takes time.

Wider conference reflections

From breakout sessions and panels covering issues such as vacancy, dereliction, demographic changes, and the impacts of inequality and poverty on public health, to an insightful forward look at political movements from Professor John Curtice, the key takeaway from these sessions is that local government’s agility and innovation will be crucial to the future ambitions of Scotland.

Despite what previous fiscal frameworks and PfG’s may suggest, local government is not the administrative arm of central government. Local government is where innovation, collaboration and forward-thinking have the biggest impacts on the lives of those living in our communities.

This reflective theme was reaffirmed by Debora Keyambe, University of Edinburgh Rector and Scottish Refugee Council CEO Sabir Zazi, who highlighted the important role local government has played in welcoming and integrating refugees.

A huge shout out to the team at COSLA for organising one of the most forward-thinking and reflective local government conferences the LGIU Team has attended in 2023. 


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