The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) will choose its new leadership team including the President on June 17th. COSLA President is a key role in Scottish public life and never more so than now. The office is multifaceted and there are two elements: building consensus within the Convention and being the voice of local authorities in dealings with the Scottish government. Lessons from COSLA’s early and more recent history are instructive.
Prior to COSLA’s establishment, local government had been represented by four national associations as well as a number of local associations reflecting the diversity of authorities. The Royal Commission of Scottish Local Government (Wheatley) recognised the importance of bodies speaking on behalf of local government noting the experience across Europe, especially Scandinavia, where strong associations had value for local government as a whole, for central government and the general public. Scandinavian associations had a ‘formidable range of operations and play a positive role in the country’s affairs’. Two essential prerequisites for success were an ability to speak and act authoritatively on behalf of members and adequate financing and staffing.
There was a debate on whether a single association could manage the task of speaking for all local authorities after reorganisation in the 1970s. By definition, local government represents diversity and having a single body to speak for local government can thereby seem like an oxymoron. But there are common local government interests as distinct from diverse local interests. This distinction is not always easy to navigate and this has been a challenge throughout COSLA’s existence. The decision rested with the new regional, district and island councils. There were concerns and about a dozen of the 53 district councils initially opposed a single association.
COSLA first met in April 1975 and elected George Sharp (‘Mr Fife’) as its first President. Sharp was a formidable figure having successfully led the campaign to ‘save Fife’ in the battles over reorganisation after Wheatley had recommended splitting Fife in two. Major challenges soon emerged in this era of stagflation (high levels of inflation combined with growing levels of unemployment). UK Government response, enforced by conditions attached to a loan from the International Monetary Fund, was to cut expenditure. Local government experienced more than its fair share of cuts, a pattern that occurs whenever central governments embark on what is euphemistically called ‘efficiencies’. A key issue was how the aggregate cut in grant should be distributed, which authorities and services would suffer most?
Rural authorities felt that they were suffering most and campaigned for change. As many of the rural authorities were Tory or Independent controlled, this was seen as an anti-Labour alliance. This was played out in the election of Tom Clarke, Monklands Provost and Labour MP and Shadow Scottish Secretary, as President defeating Bearsden and Milngavie’s Tory Provost in 1978. However, amendments to how COSLA operated meant that Strathclyde Region, the giant local authority unit, saw its representation on key committees reduced and empowered smaller authorities. Strathclyde considered withdrawing from COSLA. Not for the last time, an internal crisis due to financial pressures imposed externally threatened to undermine consensus and unity. Crucially, key Conservative councillors recognised that the unity of COSLA was the bigger prize. In 1979, the full Convention reconsidered its internal organisation including how the president and vice president should be elected. Ettrick and Lauderdale District Council held out against changes and used procedural devices to hold up changes that would mollify Strathclyde. But compromise had been reached and changes were ratified in 1980, ending a highly divisive period in COSLA.
However, it would not be the last occasion when divisions threatened the authority of the body created as the voice of local government. The Scottish central government was well aware of potential tensions. The 1980s saw local government lose out as the Scottish Office imposed cuts and forced policies on local authorities. But George Younger, as Secretary of State for Scotland, was careful in choosing his battles with individual local authorities, wary of taking on the mighty Strathclyde Region. A number of Labour authorities led by more radical councillors challenged central government but found themselves isolated with little more than rhetorical support from colleagues across Scotland.
Despite difficult backdrops, COSLA has often set the agenda. After the devolution referendum in 1979, Lewis Gunn of Strathclyde University urged COSLA to broaden its role and become a kind of precursor of the Constitutional Convention. Its role in the creation of the Scottish Parliament is less acknowledged than deserved, providing essential support for Constitutional Convention. There is a cruel irony in the central role COSLA played in creating the Scottish Parliament, while the SNP carped from the sidelines, to find local government undermined by the SNP in Parliament.
This is set to intensify rather than abate in this era of the rising cost of living and spending cuts as laid out in the resource allocations outlined on May 31st. COSLA’s role is vital and the choice of who leads it is important. The two key skills outlined at the start – building consensus within and providing a strong authoritative voice externally – will present challenges for whoever is elected.
Much depends on SNP councillors. If SNP councillors become champions of local government they will find themselves in conflict with the SNP leadership in Holyrood. There is a model to draw upon. Pat Watters, the longest-serving COSLA President (2001-12), was a Labour Councillor who always championed local government and never diluted criticisms of Labour Ministers when necessary. He was also willing to engage constructively across political parties including with the SNP government when it came to office in 2007.
The prospect of an independence referendum hovers over all of this, even if remote in reality it is central to SNP aspirations and may preclude SNP councillors from acting independently in the interests of local government. SNP nominations for the presidency will be judged by most councillors on the willingness to put local government first. Failure to pass this test will disqualify a candidate in the minds of the vast majority of Scottish councillors. Other parties’ candidates will need to show a willingness to find common cause with SNP councillors wherever possible, to convince them of the importance of local government without abandoning their goal of independence.
We can expect the election of any non-SNP councillor as President to be presented by sections of the SNP as evidence of the continuation of Better Together. This framing confirms the one-dimensional view of Scottish politics that overshadows all else and disrespects local government. A key question remains, vitally important to communities that regardless of party affiliation, who is best capable of uniting COSLA and navigating the difficult relationship between local and central government in Scotland?