Scotland Democracy, devolution and governance, Economy and regeneration

Green, amber or red? Scotland’s central and local government relations

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Photo Credit: KSAG Photography Flickr via Compfight cc

Ahead of his contribution to the 2023 COSLA Conference Panel on “Our Relationship with Governments and Parliaments”, LGIU’s Chief Executive, Jonathan Carr-West, notes some initial takeaways from last week’s Programme for Government. 

As heads turned towards the dramatic collapse of another large English local authority, many in the local government and public services sector will be asking whether Scotland’s Programme for Government (PfG) is building towards a long-awaited and, often promised, empowered local government.

Covered on the day by our LGIU Scotland team, toplines from the PfG included a First Minister determined to enshrine the language of “missions” outlined in April. However, for the local government sector, the release of the Verity House Agreement in June gave us a new lens on which to view this year’s PfG.

Using the metaphor of a traffic light, at first glance the PfG offers an “amber” signal for the Scottish Government’s (SG) resolve to the Verity House Agreement. Synthesising the array of critical insights for local government detailed in the policy briefing, increased mentions of “local government” show that progress is underway for the timeline of actions identified by SG and COSLA to empower local government.

A second read confirms an “amber” signal. Not only has local government received a renewed focus, but the positioning of local government gives hope for the treatment of local government as a partner for transformation, not an agent of delivery.

Scottish Parliament Information Centre
Scottish Parliament Information Centre

Helpfully aided by the above word cloud produced by the Scottish Parliament Information Centre, principles of localism can be inferred from textual analysis of the PfG and more importantly, local government is positioned in each of the three missions, indicating an embedding of the “local by default, national by agreement” principle. Scottish Government will rely on local government and partners to deliver these missions, which begs the question of whether this new approach will be underpinned by the previous asymmetrical relationship, or will local government be treated with respect and parity, truly a sphere of government?

But what’s missing? 

As touched upon above, seeing is believing. PfG 23/24 offers a valuable snapshot in time of how central government intends to view local government and is a testament to the laudable work of COSLA to communicate the local government sector’s current mindset. In the coming months, the independent variable will be the working relationship between local government, COSLA and Scottish Government.

However, as our upcoming State of Local Government Finance in Scotland is likely to shine a light on, the financial empowerment of local government in the December budget remains the critical litmus test of how central government actually treats local government.

The May Scottish Futures Forum event on Building for the Future highlighted that central and local government relations require an international lens. The UK is an outlier in its approach to local government. Power and its various manifestations in our political system remain irreversibly on a centripetal trajectory and the window-shopping tendency upon which local government’s potential is viewed inhibits the local transformations required to tackle society’s most pressing challenges.

For the PfG, this means detaching the context local government operates in. The PfG does offer an “amber” indication of SG resolve towards local government empowerment, under the principles outlined in the Verity House Agreement, however, as PfG looks at “redefining” the relationship with local government should we as a sector anchor our evaluative frameworks outside of the UK’s highly-centralised political system and instead ask the “what if” questions?

  • What if local government was funded properly?
  • What if people really participated in local democracy?
  • What if central government trusted local government to do its job?
  • What if people trusted democratic institutions again?

Questions we are asking ourselves of local government systems in Scotland, across the UK, Ireland and Australia through our LGIU@40 programme, applying these questions to the PfG produces a somewhat multicoloured picture. While the focus on a fiscal framework at least endeavours attention towards local government finance, the great risk going forward is that tinkering with mechanisms negates the pressing need to focus on rebuilding trust in local democracy and democratic institutions – a task which does not fit neatly with the “anti-poverty, pro-growth” message from Holyrood last week.

Interested in central and local government relations?
Make sure you attend the COSLA conference on Thursday, September 28th, where Jonathan Carr-West and Professor James Mitchell will discuss our Relationship with Governments and Parliaments. 

LGIU@40: For the future of local government



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