In Conversation with Councillor Steven Heddle, Vice President of COSLA

As part of LGIU’s series on local government leadership, Vice President of COSLA, Cllr Steven Heddle, tell us about his local government experience and how COSLA and the sector are navigating the challenges and opportunities of local government in 2023.

COSLA Vice President, Cllr Steven Heddle. Credit @COSLA

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

At COSLA, I am the Vice President and have a number of roles, from supporting the COSLA President and the other spokespersons to engaging with the Scottish Government at Cabinet level, as well as providing political leadership. Since we represent all our members regardless of political party, a core part of the role is about maintaining cohesiveness.

Prior to my leadership role in COSLA, I have been going back and forth to COSLA for about 11 years so far. Representing the Kirkwall East ward of Orkney Islands Council as an independent Councillor since 2007, I was the leader of the Council from 2012 to 2017, and in 2017 I first joined the COSLA team as the Environment and Economy spokesperson. During this time, I was also the President of the Conference of Peripheral Municipalities and Regions Islands Commission from 2014-16, and represented COSLA at the CEMR, the European local government association, from 2012 to 2017.

Before my local government roles, I was a physicist by profession. First studying in Aberdeen, after graduation I worked in industry on Merseyside and hated it, so then decided to embark on a PhD at Edinburgh University. I then worked there as a Research Associate and later moved on to the Royal Observatory Edinburgh.

During all that, real life took place. I got married, we had a son, realised we couldn’t afford Edinburgh house prices, so I moved back to Orkney with my family, initially working remotely for the ROE modelling radio telescope arrays when my wife took up an opportunity with the University of Highlands and Islands to develop a degree programme at Orkney College.

That’s my CV. As a real person, I’m a proud islander, and a keen football fan, supporting Celtic, and cyclist. I love music, play guitar in a punk rock covers band and help organise the annual Orkney Rock Festival. Which may be why I need hearing aids.

As a local democracy, islands have unique characteristics. What advice would you give for other public sector colleagues when working with the island’s local government and public services?

Take what they are saying seriously.

History shows the Islands are often ahead of their time. If you go back to 1975 when local government was reorganised, the Islands Councils were the only unitary authorities.

Shortly before that the County Councils of Orkney and Shetland gained their own Acts of Parliament giving them control of their harbour areas, amongst other things. This has been fruitful for the Islands as it allowed them to develop an income stream from their oil terminals, creating smaller versions of the sovereign wealth fund the rest of the country would ideally have had, like Norway. Sadly the glory days of oil income are gone, and the islands are now financially struggling to maintain services as much as anybody else.

Moving on, around the Scottish independence referendum we thought about what form local government reform could take in the Islands. The joint Our Islands Our Future campaign led to The Empowering Scotland’s Island Communities prospectus and the Islands (Scotland) Act, looking at empowerment to make the most of our opportunities and develop our communities. Pre-dating that, we looked at models of how the public sector operates, considering economies of scale that are sensible opportunities for the islands across the public sector, within our geography and economy, rather than centralisation of services nationally by function. We are isolated by the sea and cannot just pop next door to borrow a lorry, or a social worker, or a finance office.

So we are strongly motivated to think of solutions, and used to sorting things out for ourselves if we are given the opportunity.

Another main difference with the Islands is we are largely independent Councillors. In Orkney, 19 out of 21 are independent, and Comhairle nan Eilean Siar and Shetland also have similarly high numbers of independent Councillors.

One final difference is the nature of local democracy on the Islands. We are rooted in our communities to an exceptionally high degree. Surgeries are hardly necessary in the sense that you constantly run into people who raise issues. We are rooted in the community, we know each other fairly well and within our relatively small isolated community, you need to get on well with everybody. That should be borne in mind as when finding solutions and compromises, we are all trying to find solutions which work for our local communities.

In the long-term, how financially sustainable is the current local government finance arrangement? Where do you think local governance is heading?

It is a difficult situation we are in. The idea that we can achieve current levels of public services with year-on-year real-term budget reductions is unrealistic. Efficiencies can no longer dig us out of the funding holes, and we are having to consider ever more unpalatable cuts to the services our communities expect and depend upon. We need the Scottish Government to recognise the extent of the issue.

We recognise that the government has a difficult job to keep everything running, but it is firmly our view that when the pie is sliced, local government seems last in line.

Fundamentally local government is on the frontline for a number of priority policy areas, such as social care, education and climate action. When our funding is consistently eroded, then our ability to address these issues is similarly diminished and the notion of small interventions to keep some parts working while other parts are being run down is not realistic.

We are having these conversations with the Scottish Government, and to their credit, they are keen to discuss a  ‘new deal’ and fiscal framework. But we need to come to a position when the funding situation is substantially improved.

(Interview continues below)

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Local government has been quick to adapt to new technologies. In particular, where do you see a long-term change in the digitalisation of public service delivery?

It is difficult to single out a single area specifically. Digitalisation is definitely set to increase, especially in the delivery of public services, however, you do have to recognise the social aspect of local government.

Particularly from an Island perspective, if local government becomes a faceless user interface this would be a retrograde step. We represent the community and we should be visible within our communities.

And digitalisation can tie in with work such as Community Wealth Building and place making. The loss of retail shops on our high streets is clear to see and it seems that even the charity shop retail model is failing now. So a key focus long-term needs to be on preserving our lived environment and asking ourselves how we protect the places within it. Community facilities providing access to and assistance with digital services may play a role.

It is worth bearing in mind that local government is visible on the ground in areas such as libraries, hubs for communities and archives. You can’t underestimate the extent of the social connection that these places support and Covid demonstrated how social interaction goes a long way. Maintaining this is important.

Overall, digitalisation is absolutely the way forward and it will improve the method of service delivery, but hand in hand, there needs to be a digitally equal society which considers the needs of rural areas and the vulnerable.

From your experience on COSLA’s local democracy commission, what role do you envision for citizens assemblies and local government?

There is absolutely a place for citizens assemblies. Whenever we get into this, we get into the questions around the relative merits of participatory and representative democracy but what we need to get to is a place where the two things are not competing against each other – the representative does not feel under threat by participative and vice versa.

The idea behind Citizens Assemblies is fine. But how do we ensure that these are inclusive, that people without the money and time are engaged equally?

When it comes to participative democracy, we do not want to get into a situation where unrepresentative lobby groups can sway citizen assemblies and we need to make sure disenfranchised communities are protected. This is an unresolved problem.

Within that, there is also the question of who formulates our participative democracy and what weight do we give to it? Could we end up with a situation where we are not the agents driving it? Could citizen assemblies be used to bypass councils? The Scottish Government would be understandably livid if the UK government used such bodies to bypass the devolved powers of the Scottish Government, and equally so wouldCouncils be if the Scottish Government ignored our democratic mandate in favour of vociferous community groups who may not even be representative of their community.

Local government knows our communities, it is logical for councils to engage the communities, and to develop inclusively the participative democracy that will play a role in determining our actions.

As COSLA spokesperson for the environment during COP-26, what lessons did you learn for the local government and OIC during that experience?

Cop26 was interesting. One aspect was that it took place in the midst of the pandemic, and secondly, the hopes and expectations that it would lead to concrete enactment of the Paris Agreement were not borne out.

From the perspective of the COSLA delegation, the increasing realisation and urgency of the climate crisis really came across, and it proved quite sobering to think the time for action can be measured in months.

While COP-26 did not manage to get the drive at the national and international level, the Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR) and other organisations at the local government level really took to heart the realisation that this is a problem and something has got to be done.

So there is a real enthusiasm to get something done at the local level, but as we see in Scotland, in common with most countries, we are limited in what we can do both by funding and the pace of action being driven from the centre.

COSLA speaks regularly with the Scottish Government about this, and we highlight that the Just Transition Commission first report called on the Scottish Government and COSLA to conclude the Local Governance Review and empower communities to give them greater control on the transition to net-zero, something that is yet to happen.

The finance discussion is heavily linked to this and the stream of crises facing us makes achieving Net Zero even more difficult. The key focus for many Councils during COVID and now the cost of living crisis is keeping people alive, as well as trying to look to the long-term and upgrading to energy-efficient housing stock.

But there is also a real frustration at the lack of long-term capital investment for things such as upgrading the energy efficiency of housing and heating. We saw the scale of resources mobilised during the pandemic, and regrettably, we’ve also seen the amount of money that has been wasted by some of the procurement actions, so from a climate change point of view there is a real disappointment in knowing that we could have used that to insulate every home in the country. Going forward, the key learning is we must act now, and we must do it fast enough.

Finally, building on that, it would be interesting to hear what you now think of the challenges facing COSLA and your message to the wider local government sector.

The challenges we’ve discussed in terms of securing funding to provide essential service, strengthening local democracy and achieving net zero are fundamental, so maintaining the cohesiveness and effectiveness of COSLA to advance councils’ positions are my key priorities.

It is also worth mentioning the pressures on the workforce, not just in the local government sector, but within COSLA itself. Our staff are having to move from crisis to crisis, which each creates a multitude of conflicting challenges, meaning that even with the fantastic commitment and passion for our cause that they bring we can’t expect that everything can be done. We can’t allow our workforce to burn out and leaders throughout the sector should unite to act to make sure our staff feel supported and are supported.

For myself, I am enjoying my role and I look forward to supporting the work of COSLA in getting a fair funding deal for local government so we can do the best we can for the people we serve.

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