Scotland Democracy, devolution and governance

What does a change in Scottish Government mean for councils?

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Twelve months since Humza Yousaf became First Minister, and only ten months since the Verity House Agreement (VHA) appeared, here Jonathan Carr-West looks at the implications of his resignation for local government. 

This week, as we watched Humza Yousaf resign as First Minister and prospective candidates line up, I was reminded of the last time the SNP chose its leader.

Just over a year ago, they selected a candidate who had a “vision to hand more powers to local councils in a bid to tackle localised issues impacting Scotland’s communities” according to a March press release. A candidate who, as First Minister, implemented what looked like a historic new partnership agreement with local government. A candidate who, just months later, stunned local government with the shock announcement of a council tax freeze, flying in the face of the principle of “no surprises”.

Looking back, there were reasons to be optimistic about Humza Yousaf’s approach to local government, but the principles did not endure. Looking forward, Scotland needs a government that can back up the principles of Verity House with meaningful action and real partnership.

As I remarked at the COSLA Conference in 2023, no council is an island. No council is an island because councils work together with partners to deliver in the best interests of their residents. No council is an island because if councils collapse, the knock-on effects on the NHS, police, fire, other councils and public services would be catastrophic. No council is an island because they all need to exist within a broader ecosystem of relationships, including with central governments.

This week reinforces the importance of relationships between local and Scottish Government. The two do not operate in separate spheres; rather, together they are key partners with the same basic goal: the delivery of essential services for millions of people across Scotland.

However, no one can say this relationship has been or will be easy. Successive years of increasing amounts of ring-fencing, centrally driven initiatives, and Council Tax freezes had only served to suggest that central government viewed councils merely as an arm for policy delivery, not partners with their own democratic mandate.

Six-point plans to empower local government aside, the high point of Yousaf’s term for central-local relations was the cosigning of the VHA in June 2023. This high-level partnership framework between local and central government promised key stepping stones to empower local government. Ranging from a fiscal framework for local government, to promising an end to ring-fencing, the maxim of “local by default, national by agreement” offered a new guiding principle to this relationship.

Fast-forward to April 2024, two things become abundantly clear. First, Verity House shows the potential of having a First Minister who understands and respects the key role of local government, as well as supporting  and recognising the importance of a strong system of local government.

Second, actions, not words, are the metric for scrutiny. While columnists debate the role of the Council Tax freeze in the downfall of the Bute House Agreement, even sceptics of Verity House were shocked at the speed the First Minister reneged on the ‘underlying principle of “no surprises”’.

As such, a change in Scottish Government leadership offers a critical juncture for Scottish local government. There is both an opportunity and a challenge for local government in the sense local government needs leadership from Scottish Government to deliver for communities. A Local Governance Review, fiscal framework, and shared programme of activity until 2027 cannot remain words on a document.

However, we cannot underestimate the risk of the status quo and return to even more ring-fenced initiatives, unfunded mandates, and continuing Council Tax freezes.

Audit Scotland is clear the public sector in its current form is not affordable. Whoever becomes First Minister cannot escape the need for a discussion on the affordability of our current system of public services and as one respondent to our State of Local Government Finance report stated, “It is just a matter of time before the first Scottish council goes bankrupt.”

So, where can local government go now?

While press statements promise the world, local government will keep on delivering. Collaborative initiatives, including the transformation programme between the Improvement Service and SOLACE Scotland, demonstrate an action-orientated attitude to continuous improvement, which the Scottish Government should aspire to.

Only time will tell whether VHA is renamed, scrapped, or reappraised. What matters now is ensuring the shared recognition of all that underpins the VHA including ensuring interdependency between central and local government remains embedded.

What is needed is recognition that central government cannot achieve shared missions without recognising the leadership and delivery from Scotland’s 32 councils that form the basis of renewed and sustainable central-local relations.

Local government needs stability and transparency to achieve the valuable aims of the VHA. Verity House meant that co-designed policy was not an academic concept to which we aspired, but an agreed-upon approach to working with local government. This is why despite the Council Tax freeze, a new First Minister offers the opportunity for a leader to embed and enact the principles and actions of Verity House and empower local government.

For advocates of local democracy in Scotland, the question we must ask ourselves is whether local government can survive a u-turn on the Verity House principles.

In the meantime, LGIU is standing together with our members to share learning, research, case studies, and real-world experience of actions that deliver for communities and individuals.

More from LGIU Scotland…

No Council is an island – COSLA 2023

The state of local government finance in Scotland

Through European eyes: Local government in the United Kingdom



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