Good morning everyone
I’m delighted to be here with you, and I want to start by firstly thanking you for inviting me today.
I’m really pleased to be able to join you because it is a chance to build the kind of approach that I want COSLA to be all about- working together to understand the issues, learn from one another, and focus on solutions.
That’s vitally important, because every day millions of people rely on the essential services that councils provide. And that simply wouldn’t be possible without the huge dedication and hard work of the 240,000 staff that deliver them in communities across the country.
Local Government is one of Scotland's largest employers, and roughly 1 in 10 working people are employed by a council. As a lifelong trade union member and teacher for over 20 years, I absolutely believe in the vital importance of a properly skilled and valued workforce in getting the best possible outcomes for our communities.
I’ll come on to say a little about COSLA’s role as an employer’s organisation and the wider issues facing councils, but first of all I want to take a few minutes today to say a little about COSLA, and my priorities for local government.
I was elected COSLA president in June 2017 and since then I have spent a lot of time travelling around the country meeting as many people as I can to understand the challenges and opportunities they face. I’ve met many councillors, as well a wide variety of staff, not just from councils, but across our partners in other public services and the third sector too.
Time and time again, I’ve been struck not just by their innovation and passion, but also by how well they know their communities, and understand what can make a real difference to the services they need. In short, it really is no exaggeration to say that local government’s greatest asset is its people.
And in many ways, that unique ability to focus on what matters locally is why strong local government is so important. The priorities here in Inverness aren’t the same as in Glasgow, just as what works in Falkirk wont suit people on Skye. The point is that local democratic choice and control really does matter to people’s lives, and it’s a fundamental principle that I am committed to building on.
And it’s why I am determined to make sure that councils have the powers and resources that they need to get on with the job, and to empower their staff.
Why does that matter? Well, just look at the evidence…
For many decades it’s been assumed that doing more things centrally is the only way to improve services and make them more efficient.
But that thinking simply hasn’t addressed the inequalities that still affect so many people across this country. Take the most basic measure of life expectancy. The gap between rich and poor, sometimes just streets apart, is shockingly large in too many parts of Scotland.
It’s worth taking a moment to reflect on that… It means that in some parts of Scotland, people live well into their 80s or beyond. A couple of miles away, people are lucky to ever draw a pension.
Despite the best efforts of the entire public sector, inequalities like these have often widened.
Of course, no one set out to create that situation, but I think it’s totally unacceptable in a modern democracy. And it’s not only morally wrong, it’s expensive too- as the Christie Commission demonstrated 10 years ago, huge amounts of public money are consumed by so called “failure demand” – in other words, trying to fix problems after they occur.
Just to be clear, none of that is about any single government, or a single political party. Instead, it’s about a long term, multi-decade trend. We have tried taking power to the centre and it has just not worked.
The good news is that as a country we are beginning to recognise that this needs to change.
That is why I have welcomed that a Review of Local Governance is now underway to begin to explore what should happen. If you’re not aware of this, I would urge you to take a look. It’s a real opportunity to take a step back and rethink how we want to deliver services and decision making in future.
The review itself is in two parts. Part 1 is being led by an Enabling Group bringing together a range of third sector and community groups - as well as others including Dave Watson from Unison who many of you will know. It has just launched a programme of engagement which lasts until November.
At the same time the Scottish Government, city regions, regional groupings, local authorities, and public-sector organisations are also being invited to propose alternative approaches to governance, powers, accountabilities and ways of working.
Together, this work has got real potential, but to be effective it needs everyone to play their part – including public services and agencies that deliver services locally, including the NHS, enterprise and many more. And it means Scottish Government looking at how it shares powers as locally as possible too.
That’s a big opportunity, and one that I hope you recognise as vital too. And it’s just one reason why I am proud that my job as President is to champion local government and strong local democracy, and give councils a strong national voice.
As an organisation, COSLA has also been doing a lot of groundwork to make this happen. We’ve completed a Strategic Review to help us focus on key priorities, modernise our decision-making structures, and improve our communications and media.
And we have a very strong cross party political leadership team- Cllr Graham Houston from Stirling Council, my vice President, and 5 spokespeople –
· Kelly Parry from Midlothian Council for Communities,
· Stephen McCabe from Inverclyde Council for Children and Young People,
· Steven Heddle from Orkney Islands Council for Environment and the Economy,
· Peter Johnston from West Lothian Council for Health and Social Care, and
· Gail McGregor from Dumfries and Galloway Council for Resources, including the Employers’ brief.
They’ve wasted no time in representing local government in countless negotiations with the Scottish and UK governments, parliamentary committees, and many others.
Above all, they’ve been forging new relationships. That’s vital, because I want to bring the Local Government family together to work productively on behalf of our communities. So I want to see a new relationship between national government, local government, and its many partners, not least of all trade unions. We should have, as we have always said, not tiers but spheres of government in Scotland. By working together, we can arrive at a positive destination that serves everyone in Scotland.
That approach works – and as we look to the future I want it to become the way we tackle the major tasks that lie ahead including getting a fair deal for local government in the budget, ensuring that education reforms work in the best interests of our communities, managing the implications of Brexit, and fair, sustainable and affordable pay, to name but a few.
Of course, I’m not pretending that any of this will be easy. So having spoken about the opportunities, I’d like now to turn to some key challenges.
I want to start by thanking you for the support you gave COSLA during our #essentialservices campaign in the run up to the Scottish Government’s Budget announcement in December.
Together, the local government family campaigned for additional resources and lobbied parliamentary parties to support it. The support of our trade unions was invaluable and helped secure an additional £170m for local government.
However, there is no escaping the fact that the last two financial settlements have not been positive– a point underlined by the Scottish Parliament’s recent SPICE report which shows that Local government has not been prioritised in recent spending reviews. Indeed, to quote from that report:
“In real terms, between 2013-14 and 2017-18, the local government Revenue settlement decreased at a much faster rate (-7.1% or -£744.7m) than the Scottish Government Revenue budget (including non-domestic rates income) (-1.8% or -£547.3m)”.
That reduction in funding is having a huge impact. In terms of our workforce alone, it’s led to a reduction of over 28,000 full time equivalent jobs across Scottish local government since 2010.
Looking ahead, we fear this position has been echoed in the Scottish Government’s medium term financial strategy. Indeed, just last weekend, there was analysis of this which, if proved correct, will put many local government jobs and services at risk.
And if you saw our response to that analysis last weekend, you will know that both Cllr McGregor and I are categorical that this simply cannot continue if we are to deliver the services that our communities rely on every day.
Last year we calculated local government needed £545million to stand still. We did not get that, and COSLA has been clear that from a financial perspective there is no more room left for manoeuvre.
And while we support many of the new initiatives being announced by the Scottish Government, this cannot continue to mean eroding funding for other services to pay for them.
So let me be say this. Local government needs to be financially empowered, not weakened. As we head into this year’s spending review negotiations, our priorities will be to secure money for core essential services, and funding for pay.
Individual pots of ring fenced money are not the answer as these do not allow for financial planning and leave no room for democratic choices about what works locally.
Instead, we need more opportunity to raise more of our own income - and that is why COSLA is pushing for powers in relation to transient visitor tax and other discretionary local taxation. Without this we cannot fully respond to the needs of local communities.
· The UK’s Withdrawal from the European Union
· Education reform
· Integration of health and social care
· Early Learning and Childcare.
The scale and pace of change has scarcely ever been greater, and with that comes the need for new work to address workforce planning and skills.
Take Early Learning and Childcare as an example. Expanding the annual entitlement to free early learning and childcare to 1140 hours by 2020 is undoubtedly ambitious.
We know that we have a challenging timescale to train and recruit the additional staff that will be needed. As well as national initiatives, many councils are reskilling some of their existing workforce and working with schools to offer modern apprenticeship and other routes into childcare for our young people – a step which also helps to further alleviate youth unemployment. We have also secured the funding required from government to ensure that our workforce will be trained, qualified and fairly paid, and we are working with partner providers in the third and private sector to ensure that they also pay the living wage as part of the expansion.
This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to make a difference to the lives of our youngest children, and our staff will be at the forefront of this.
It’s also just one of many initiatives where now, more than ever before, I am fully committed to working collaboratively with our trade unions, and I look forward to hearing your views today.
The final challenge I want to highlight is about equality.
This year marks an important anniversary. It is 100 years since women gained the right to vote, and tomorrow I will be joining thousands of women and girls in Edinburgh to celebrate this momentous event by walking through the city streets wearing green, white or violet scarves - the colours of the suffrage movement. And of course, this year also marks the centenary of the abolition of property qualifications which gave all men over 21 the vote too.
I spoke earlier about local government’s commitment to delivering better outcomes across the country. Much has been achieved. But one of our greatest challenges is that not everyone has equal access to those outcomes at the moment.
One of my personal priorities as President of COSLA is to turn that situation around.
This is a complex and diverse undertaking – our role in COSLA includes everything from helping resettle over 2500 Syrian refugees, developing a Scotland wide approach to period poverty, delivering the equally safe strategy to prevent and eradicate violence against women and girls, and much more.
It is big agenda, and one that I know many of you in this room will be equally passionate about. In fact I would like to pay tribute to the work that so many trade unions have undertaken, as well as the STUC itself, in championing these issues and bringing them to the very front of the debate.
I also said earlier that one of the great strengths of councils is that they are uniquely accessible and responsive to local needs. But as councillors, we can only be that voice of our local communities if we are genuinely representative of them.
And in this regard I know that there are areas where more progress is needed. Despite some improvement, only 29% of Scotland’s 1227 local councillors are women. Other key parts of our communities are also under-represented.
As COSLA President, and as a local councillor for Aberdeenshire, I am determined to deliver practical changes that will remove barriers and make a positive difference.
To conclude, I’ve talked a lot of about partnership today. And so I want to leave you with one last thought. Whatever the challenge, COSLA needs your help if we are to succeed. By working together, we can create a more local, more empowering approach to public services, lead the political agenda not just respond to it, and above all, make a real difference to our communities. In fact, I firmly believe that it’s the only way we are going to be successful.
I look forward to the debate later today and hearing your ideas about how we can help make that happen.
Thank you for listening.