Returning from the SNP’s 2016 conference, LGiU’s head of briefings Janet Sillett reflects on the event from a local government perspective.
The SNP conference was more relaxed than Labour’s in Liverpool, which I had also been to. No secure zone. MSPs mingling with delegates. But the usual fringe meetings and long walks down anonymous corridors. Did these two very different conferences have anything else in common?
I think they did when we see them from the perspective of localism. And the Conservative conference too.
Firstly, councillors across the UK and from all parties believe that they are not seen as partners in government by Westminster or Holyrood.
I attended an APSE fringe in Glasgow on the role of councillors. There were very few fringe meetings of direct relevance to local government (though many, of course, were indirectly relevant) and not many councillor speakers. This one was packed, which showed there was a lot of enthusiasm about and interest in local government, and the challenges it, and particularly, elected members, are facing currently. The speakers stressed this was a period of huge change for councillors and one of increasingly difficult decisions and choices. The challenge particularly of continuing pressure on budgets – with Brexit possibly making that worse. But also the challenges and opportunities of the desire to do politics differently – seen in the independence referendum and reflected in the O’Neill Commission.
Councillors are being faced with increasing tasks and many roles – within the council, in their communities and in working in partnerships. Can every councillor be expected to take all this on? And what happens to the political and campaigning role? Are councillors always valued for their work – particularly the work outside the council and in joint boards? And how can councillors’ voices be heard?
These are concerns across the UK – how local representatives are perceived by the centre and by their residents.
This was reflected in another fringe I went to – put on by IPPR Scotland – about Scotland and Brexit. There were no local government speakers and local government was not mentioned once. Yet the speakers were looking for solutions to the uncertainties and difficulties thrown up by the EU vote. A speaker wanted to see stakeholders making their voice heard more strongly in the informal and formal debates and negotiations – small businesses for example, the third sector and higher education. But local government was not included – even though it is (with business) by far the most affected by Brexit of any sector.
And local government can have a major role in providing answers – in promoting social cohesion, in attracting investment and building on and increasing relationships with the rest of Europe, and in strengthening cultural ties. Holyrood rightly calls for the voice of Scotland to be heard – but surely we need that voice to include that of local government. The LGiU had found scepticism at the Labour and Conservative conferences about local government being part of the discussion, being at the table. That needs to change – in Scotland and in the rest of the UK.
So the challenges councillors face are not that different in England and Scotland – major financial pressures, Brexit, increasing and multiple roles and sometimes little clarity about the roles themselves. And often huge workloads and little recognition.
The message to Holyrood and to the UK Government must be to show that local authorities and councillors are part of the solution to this rapidly changing and uncertain political landscape. Indeed, that it is essential for strengthening democracy and in improving trust in government that local government is not excluded from these complex debates.