COSLA Conference Rising to the Challenge

The Conference opened with the COSLA President of last 10 years Pat Watters commented that he had just been invited to be in the audience of a debate about local services. His view, strongly shared by the vast majority of delegates, is that local government delivers these services and should be at the table not in the audience. The conference was the backdrop for an ideological clash of the titans between those wishing to meet the budget deficit through centralising and targeting services and those supporting localism and universality of provision. That is not to say that efficiency savings cannot be made and shared services are being vigorously pursued. Chief Executive Rory Mair reflected that as the focus has changed to outcomes so the accountability of any single unit or organisation has been eradicated and that the removal of ringfencing has resulted into embarkation into unsafe seas. With input measures, Council had guidelines and benchmarks; with outcomes performance measurement is much more challenging. Input measures were imperfect – is 53,000 teachers going to guarantee a good outcome at the end of education or is a class size of 18 going to guarantee literacy? Campbell Christie is chairing a review of local government and there was much speculation about structural reform. The costs of any reorganisation of local government might easily be in excess of £1bn and Rory expressed himself as sceptical, saying that research on structural reform over the last 20 years shows that it has not been delivered in time to make the identified savings, it exceeds its budget and not only does it not add value, frequently it actively detracts from value. Campbell Christie outlined the remit of the Commission and its intention to produce a roadmap for the reform of public services. He was clear that public services are a commitment to social justice, social cohesion and protection of the vulnerable in Scotland. However, he intends to explore how barriers to working across multiple agencies for improved frontline delivery can be removed. The focus will be on accountability, scrutiny, targets and money.

All four main party leaders contributed to the conference. It’s a time when they are all preparing for the election campaign so there was some skimming over details which will presumably be published shortly in manifestoes. Iain Gray announced the establishment of a Fairer Scotland Commission to unlock social potential. Annabel Goldie committed herself to localism and keeping all 32 local authorities, Tavish Scott described local government as ‘cuddled’ by the SNP government but made it clear he felt power had been grabbed from local people. Alex Salmond made a flying visit to the start of the COSLA Excellence Awards, not even staying for dinner, but making it clear economic recovery is at the heart of his agenda.

Carola Gunnarsson of the Swedish local government organisation described Sweden’s government, which is even more layered than our own. Jim McCabe leader of North Lanarkshire Council gave a report of how successful his own council was without any need for reorganisation. Colin Mair of the Improvement service put the case for local determination of services which sat at odds with his paper on the second day on the centralisation of ICT services as proposed by John McClelland. Duncan Mackison of the CBI Scotland advocated for outsourcing to the private sector and giving business a ‘right to bid’ for a wide range of local government services.

Detective Chief Superintendent John Carnochan spoke passionately about violence reduction. Other speakers followed this theme talking about support for families, the young and vulnerable. Concerns were raised about the legacy that might be left to future generations as the recent budget cuts have impacted disproportionately on the young. David Bell of the University of Stirling talked of a perfect storm for young people with problems from their childhood experience and the recession pressures which are cyclic in the economy. Although according to the PISA data 2009 Scotland is fifth in Europe, behind Finland, the Netherlands, Estonia and Germany, the performance of the bottom 20% of achievers has hardly changed in 10 years whilst the performance of the top 80% has steadily increased away from them, widening the gap. Employers still prefer an experienced worker, with higher level qualifications like degrees or apprenticeships.

The conference was not as well supported as in previous years, with many local politicians staying away for fear of attracting uncomfortable media attention. However, with an election coming up and the future of local government service on a knife edge, this is an important time to be involved in the debate. The Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) has just launched a review of the statutory duties placed on local government. The DCLG are “inviting you to comment on the duties and challenge government on those which you feel are burdensome or no longer needed.” Three of these duties apply to public library services in England and, obviously, the legislation is not enacted for Scotland. However, there is a dangerous ideological battle going on between central and local government, with central government holding the carrot and stick of public sector finance. We can be sure the ripples will reach our media and our politicians.

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