The running theme of this year’s COSLA Conference was the twenty year anniversary of devolution to Holyrood, its impact on Scotland and Scottish local government. Much consideration was given to the process of devolution but we shouldn’t forget the temporal milestone. Reorganisations in Scottish governance tend to follow a twenty year cycle and the clock is ticking.
The tone was set by COSLA President Alison Evison in her speech. Time and again she stressed that the problems facing Scottish local government were becoming more pressing and we must begin to make hard choices while there is still time.
Change doesn’t happen in a smooth linear manner, it’s a series of jagged jumps precipitated by events. Sometimes those events are only apparent with hindsight but many of the speakers were able to identify a few events in plain view. The impact of Brexit, tightening of capacity caused by austerity, potential of new technology, climate change and Indyref2 were prominent.
Most speakers seemed to acknowledge that 20 years from now local government will be very different but were not sure in what way, acknowledging that perhaps the Local Governance Review (LGR) might help chart a course. Though the LGR does not have the legislative momentum many would have hoped for, 4,000 responses does demonstrate an appetite for change. The First Minister was specifically asked about the future of Single Purpose Authorities (SPA) by Cllr Manson from Orkney and her response did leave the door ajar.
Of course, SPAs are not the only innovation available and there were calls for fiscal freedom, greater powers for councils and greater resources to be channelled to important causes. I found the confident, solutions oriented assertions of the politicians uplifting but welcomed the sage advice of Cat McAuley, Chief Design Officer at Scottish Government, that far more time should be spent understanding a problem before designing a solution.
It is a tradition that Professor John Curtice presents to the COSLA Conference on the morning of the second day and once again he did not disappoint with a clear analysis of the impact of devolution. In terms of the hopes and expectations devolution carried, his assessment was one of only partial success.
After 12 years Scots did eventually consider Holyrood as important as Westminster to their lives but turnout for elections is still below Westminster. It was hoped that proportional representation (PR) would encourage the establishment of more political parties and greater diversity of elected representatives. The only lasting difference in political party make up is the rise of the Greens and at the same time there has been no significant increase in representation for women – at Holyrood it’s a steady 34-37% and at local authority level the number of women councillors is lower than in England with its first past the post system. The big unexpected result of devolution and PR was domination by the SNP.
Looking ahead, Professor Curtice’s assessment is that Brexit has had no impact on the likelihood of Indyref2, yet. There is however, some evidence that remainers are becoming increasingly enamoured of independence. While the First Minister in her speech made it clear that the time is not right to call for a referendum, a choice will have to be made if Brexit happens.
Highlight of day one for me was an ‘in conversation’ with Professor James Mitchell and Sir Neil McIntosh. Looking back on his review of local government 20 years ago, Sir Neil reflected that the hoped for parity of esteem between Holyrood and local authorities has not yet been achieved, but had a certain inevitability to it, as did a second independence referendum. Sir Neil challenged the audience to consider the future shape of Scottish local government after that referendum – regardless of whether it’s yes or no, local government will never be the same and we’ll have passed that 20-year point in the governance cycle.
Finally, huge congratulations to all the finalists of the COSLA Excellence Awards and particular mentions to the winners from Glasgow City Council, Falkirk, Fife and West Lothian Councils, Argyll and Bute Council, Stirling Council, Renfrewshire Council, South Lanarkshire Health and Social Care Partnership, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, West Lothian Council and Angus Integrated Drug and Alcohol Recovery Service. LGIU Scotland will be publishing more detailed case studies of these winners over the next few months.