Welcome to my Blog

I was the Head of Policy and Public Affairs at UNISON Scotland until my retirement in September 2018. I now work on several policy development projects, so all views are very definitely my own. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Councils should defend local services and those who deliver them

Musical chairs around the council chamber won't alter the challenges facing local government in Scotland.

The voters have had their say and there are a lot of new councillors taking responsibility for our vital local services. The Tories made the headlines with large numbers of new councillors and they delivered a share of the vote in line with recent opinion polls. The SNP held onto their council seats, but as 2012 was a disappointing year, they expected to do much better. Their share of the vote was significantly down on current polling, even allowing for the share that goes to independents. It remains to be seen if this reflects the passing of 'Peak Nat'. The SNP's hostility and underfunding of local government, coupled with the lower turnout, may result in differential voting in local elections.

For Scottish Labour, the share of the vote was significantly higher than recent polling, although that didn't protect all those elected in the fairly good 2012 elections - well before Indyref and the binary proposition that Scottish politics has become. Ironically, many councillors who bitterly opposed PR, now have good cause to be thankful for the system. Nearly half of Scottish Labour councillors are new, a very welcome development and an opportunity for Labour to move away from an often stale administrative approach to local politics.

The post-match analysis within Labour falls back on how unionist Labour should be. The problem will always be that few Labour activists get out of bed in the morning to defend flags of the unionist or nationalist variety. Socialists want to change society and therefore Scottish Labour simply has to work in that middle ground that is not obsessed by the constitution.

With every council in no overall control, PR has delivered the sort of political balance you would expect. This week will see a variety of local agreements and some new local alliances. The media prediction of pro-union coalitions may not be realised, given Scottish Labour's strong anti-austerity coalition framework. The Tories created austerity and the SNP dumped it on local government, so neither make attractive coalition partners. However, when it comes to progressive local priorities, SNP and Labour councillors will probably be closer than they are with the Tories.

Whoever leads our councils they are going to face some difficult decisions. This year was not the worst financially, with the extra revenue from council tax bands and in some cases the basic rate, mitigating the revenue cut from the Scottish Government. Many councils plugged the remaining gap with reserves, putting off some difficult long-term decisions.

The next two years are likely to be much more difficult if the Tories are re-elected and continue with their failed policy of austerity. Councillors will be pressed by officials to make difficult structural changes to services rather than the salami slicing of recent years.

They will also be faced with service reform proposals. Some will be local, often based on tired old top down solutions like shared services. Others will come from national changes driven by the Scottish Government in areas like schools and early years. Then there is the planned review of local government. In four years time councillors might find that local government is withering on the vine, unless they learn quickly to stand up for local government.

The unhelpful Local Government Partnership should come to an end and local government should once again speak with something close to one voice through COSLA. It will be interesting to see how effective the new political dynamics within COSLA will be in standing up for local democracy.

So, congratulations to all those elected last week. I'm sorry I can't paint a rosier picture of the challenges ahead, but it's worth remembering that few councillors were elected on an austerity ticket. Even Tory leaflets called for more and better local services. Councillors should defend local services and those who deliver them.

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