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It mostly covers my work as UNISON Scotland's Head of Policy and Public Affairs although views are my own. For full coverage of UNISON Scotland's policy and campaigns please visit our web site. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.
Tuesday, 12 June 2012
Local government conference
At the Holyrood local government conference yesterday. A post election look at local government in Scotland.
For those not familiar with recent developments Dave Berry from East Lothian gave a good overview of structures and roles. Reminding us that 75% of public services are delivered by councils. More than a few eyebrows were raised when he claimed ring fencing had been ended. Just what would you call the Council Tax freeze cash in return for police numbers etc - if not ring fencing.
John Curtice did his usual analysis of the results. The SNP had a record local government result, but well down on last year's Scottish Parliament election - 45% to 32%. The key element of the story was the collapse of the Lib Dem vote and this followed on into the coalition agreements as the SNP lost a common coalition partner. In 2007 the share of parties in power was fairly even, but this year Labour gained a much larger proportion of councils. A point reinforced by several speakers was that parties can get on better at local level despite their national differences.
He also introduced the concept of 'donkey voting'. His analysis shows that the alphabet matters with 64 SNP candidates being elected as against 12 lower on the ballot paper. For Labour the ratio was 51 - 12, probably reflecting better voter organisation as they also got more of their candidates elected. Although more analysis is needed here.
The local government minister Derek MacKay reminded us how well the election was administered after the 2007 shambles. He gave a commitment that council boundaries would not be redrawn in the next 5 years, arguing that drawing lines on maps was a distraction from the key issues facing local government. The business rates review would be completed over the summer and community planning would have a harder edge. He made an interesting reference to using pension funds for infrastructure investment, something UNISON has been keen to explore in more detail.
The next session started to open up more controversial issues with Henry McLeish raising concerns about the Council Tax freeze and centralisation. These concerns were also reflected in Rory Mair's CoSLA contribution. Henry was particularly good on citizens not consumers, warning the audience not to be beguiled by consultants. Both speakers highlighted the role of local government in tackling inequality. Scotland may be at the European average for many indicators at the median, but that declines rapidly in the bottom 20% income group.
Rory Mair indicated that the elections might mean a more volatile relationship between CoSLA and central government. The centralising tendency will be contested as reform must be as much about democracy as efficiency. He gave a helpful indication of current thinking around the community planning review. The new arrangements are likely to adopt the Christie report proposals with a duty to participate, powers and the engagement of communities below council level. Following questions, the issue of common performance management arrangements is clearly still work in progress. All this looks positive, but still some way from the one public service recommended in Christie and floated by Robert Pyper in today's Scotsman.
John Baillie of the Accounts Commission made the usual auditors call for more information. He also highlighted the issue of managerial capacity in councils after so many experienced staff have gone.
Overall it would appear that local government is in for gradual reform based more on integration and community planning than structural change. Budget cuts will dominate the agenda and claimed efficiency measures had a very dated feel to them. Shared services in particular. While the Concordat and Single Outcome Agreements may be here to stay, there will be tensions between central and local government if they continue with a centralising agenda. Let's hope CoSLA does raise its voice in making the case for democratic local government.