In Conversation with COSLA President Shona Morrison

On one of December’s many frosty mornings, LGiU Scotland spoke with Cllr Morrison, President of COSLA, in a conversation that ranged from major league baseball, to financing local government and the importance of hybrid working. 

COSLA President Cllr Shona Morrison was elected as the 16th President of COSLA in June 2022, becoming the first SNP COSLA President, and the fourth female President of the organisation.

To get us started, it would be great if you tell us about your role at COSLA, your work as a councillor in Moray and your own background.

I came into local government in 2017 in Moray Council. Prior to this, I worked in the health sector as a mental health nurse in Moray starting in acute psychiatry and then in community psychiatry. I loved my time in the health service but I decided to have a break to spend more time with my two girls.

During this time, I went down the track of doing my degree in History. While I still haven’t got my honours, I am determined to finish it soon. I am incredibly proud of my degree, and it is a big achievement for me. It reinforces my position with my children that if they decide to go to university, get their degrees while they are young as it is much more difficult down the line when you are an adult with multiple demands.

Entering Moray Council with the SNP in 2017 for the ward of Fochabers Lhanbryde, a year into my time at the Council, my party took over as a minority administration. Becoming deputy leader of the administration, it went into a steep learning curve at that point. The challenges really grew in this time as in 2018 I took on the chair of Health and Social care and sat on the board of NHS Grampian as well as being deputy leader and convener. So, I was the first female civic head of Moray Council and it was a huge accomplishment, as well as the really enjoyable civic duties.

My biggest passion is my community. This is something I am very mindful of with my COSLA role and I manage my time carefully to make sure I host my surgeries and react quickly to constituent issues. But generally, I find that people are understanding about the pressures, and there is a strong cross-party understanding about the workload at COSLA.

In terms of my own hobbies, I am a huge major league baseball fan and I support the San Diego Padres, and closer to Moray, I am a big fan of my dog and swimming- inside not outside!

Overall, I really enjoy the sense of community that I get from serving in local government.

Local government is facing unprecedented challenges. What do you identify as the key challenges facing Scottish local government?

COSLA has a very clear lobbying position that we launched a few weeks ago (December 2022), so we are all acutely aware of the local government pressures and our pressures in financial year 2023/24 have been assessed as over £1 billion.

We are lobbying for this amount. Council leaders are very clear about the pressures that they are facing – this situation prompted unprecedented action from all 32 Council Directors of Finance who wrote to Deputy First Minister to express concerns about the financial sustainability of councils and the tough choices that will impact the services that the public rely upon. So, the pressures on the local government are well-documented, and we hope the December 15th Scottish Government budget brings some reassuring news.

Recorded on the eve of the Scottish Budget, click here to find COSLA’s full response to the Scottish Government budget!

Building on that, it would be interesting to hear what you now think of the COSLA president and the role of COSLA. What has surprised you since coming into the role?

Being elected! It has been somewhat of a baptism of fire since June. No one could expect the challenges of the last few months so it has been fast paced.

Before June, as a Deputy leader in Moray Council my attention to COSLA was sporadic. So, coming into the President role it was all very new to me and it would have been easy to feel overwhelmed.

However, what was important for me was the ability to translate what I do locally into this national role. So, you stand for local government because you are passionate about your community and this is what inspired me to get involved in Parent Councils, Village Hall boards and to be a Brownie leader. I saw the power, dedication and passion in my communities and this passion for where I live is what made me stand in 2017.

So, for COSLA, I find it important to look at that micro experience and translate it into the macro. When I do that, I find that the issues I deal with in Moray are usually the same, but in COSLA they are just a little bigger.

I was also massively helped by the Presidential team. There is a wealth of experience and support from Cllr Steven Heddle as my deputy VP, and a great support from our 5 policy spokespeople, so thanks to Katie, Tony, Gail, Paul and Maureen for the camaraderie and the expertise.

The fantastic team of officers in COSLA are also crucial. They have been incredibly supportive and welcoming and they could not have done more to support. Reflecting on all this, it’s all about people, and people have been key to transitioning into this role.

(Interview continues below)

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This week we saw COSLA recently launch a new 2022-27 plan. What do you think is/are key differences with this new plan?

In our new 2022-27 plan, there is a real emphasis on innovation and a real focus on prevention. When we were developing the plan, it was an incredibly different backdrop to be working in and there was a bank of learned experiences from the pandemic to reflect upon.

A real focus of this plan is that we need to work at pace and be sharp when it comes to bringing innovation into everyday practice. The plan also involves a focus on all those relationships built within the different partnerships.

The main focus of the plan is about focusing on how we deliver the best we can for our communities. We have the backdrop of significant concerns over funding and finance of local government, so it is about making sure we work with partners as effectively to ensure the best outcome for our communities.

There is also the added emphasis on just transitions and a net zero economy, which is a huge piece of work that COSLA’s new Spokesperson for Environment and Economy, Cllr Gail Macgregor has embraced and I am excited to see what she delivers.

However, the plan does hold some similarities, such as support for the most vulnerable, strengthening local democracy and securing sustainable funding. But within each of those, this plan holds a real urgency.

Hybrid working cultures and recruitment challenges, increased staff turnover are issues facing every Scottish Council. Where do you think home and hybrid working will go in the next 15 months? How will that affect elected representatives?

The slow but gradual expectation of elected representatives working in-person is tricky. There is unlikely to be a one-size fits all answer, and for all levels of local government it presents particular challenges for those in rural areas.

It is also worth considering how a lot of those who stood for election in May 2022 did so under the assurance they could do their job online. When we look at barriers for elected representatives, a lot of those barriers are to do with access.

So, there is still the wider discussion of barriers to participation, such as transport and physical access. Therefore, the option of hybrid working opens up for those to stand and expands wealth and expertise.

That is why it is key that we keep hybrid working as an option. Moray has moved to this, and we need to ensure we protect this going forward and consider the pressure that if you are not in the room, you may miss out, and it is important that no one is left behind.

Looking across the local government sector, it is a huge change in the look of local government and the assets they hold, but I see it as part of the normal evolution and part of the post-pandemic process.

Finally, if you could give one clear message to the Scottish Government, what would that be?

Funding. Sustainable funding for local authorities is critical. Council leaders gave me a mandate, and sustainable financing is my main priority. Strengthening local democracy is also there, and this is why when we are working on a new deal with the Scottish Government, we are looking at how much flexibility councils will have over spending. So much of the spend, around 65%, is directed, and since each council’s needs and pressures are unique, there needs to be greater flexibility.

Commenting after the Scottish Government budget, COSLA President Shona Morrison outlined that

“The reality of the situation is that yet again, the essential services Councils deliver have not been prioritised by the Scottish Government. COSLA asked for £1bn but from our initial assessment of the Budget, we believe that Local Government will see an uplift of only £71m once policy commitments are taken into account. Whilst the decision to allow councils the freedom to set their own council tax rates is welcomed, scope will be extremely limited this year, as councils seek to protect the most vulnerable in our communities, recognising the cost-of-living crisis.”

To understand more about the key role of the COSLA Presidency for Scottish local government, check out this informative blog from Professor James Mitchell.