COSLA conference 2018: First Minister's speech

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon's speech at the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) annual conference, 11 October 2018.

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I am delighted to be here. This is the third COSLA Conference I have attended since becoming First Minister.

In the period since we have been able to make significant progress in addressing some of the big issues the country faces.

I am going to talk about a few of those today like health and social care integration, childcare and education.

But before I do that, I thought it would be appropriate just to reflect briefly on a couple of the events I have had the opportunity to attend just in the last year. They highlight how much it is possible for us to achieve when we work together.

In December, I was delighted to attend a celebration that was organised by COSLA. It marked the arrival of Scotland's 2000th refugee, under the Syrian Refugee Resettlement Programme. 

Scotland has now welcomed more than 2,400 refugees. I am mention that because the success of that programme has genuinely been a fantastic team effort, with COSLA and also individual local authorities deserving particular recognition for making the resettlement process such a success.

The other event I want to talk about took place in June when the Scottish Government launched the revised National Performance Framework. 

The framework sets out a clear vision, and clear outcomes, for the kind of country we want to create a more successful country, where everyone has an opportunity to succeed through sustainable economic growth and a fairer and more equal society as well.

It was informed by the views of COSLA and all of Scotland's local authorities. And, crucially, COSLA chose to co-sign that document with the Scottish Government.

As your President Councillor Evison said at the launch event, "The framework is a vision for all of Scotland and will require effort from all sectors across Scotland to deliver it."

Councillor Evison was acknowledging what we all recognise that we share clear ambitions for this country, and that we must work together to realise those ambitions.

And that joint work, that partnership between national and local government is fundamentally what I want to focus on today. I want to talk about some of the areas where the partnership between national and local government is, and will continue to be, particularly important, in the years ahead.

Now, there is no doubt that the most pressing challenge facing all of us at this, comes from Brexit.

The past few weeks have merely confirmed what has been increasingly clear since the 2016 referendum. There remains no clear or credible plan to protect our interests in the context of Brexit. As a result, we now face the very real prospect of exiting the EU in the most damaging way possible.

Last week, Professor Anton Muscatelli of Glasgow University, speaking at Glasgow City Council's Brexit Summit, said that in his view that would represent the most unhinged example of national self-sabotage in living memory. You heard earlier about the Fraser of Allander Institute report, which informed that event. It highlights that in the Glasgow City Region alone 40,000 jobs are supported by demand from the EU. It also points out that the region is home to 57,000 EU nationals each and every one of whom make an invaluable contribution to our universities, public services, our businesses and indeed our economy and society generally.

The report sets out very clearly the implications of Brexit for the Glasgow City Region. But of course, those risks are not unique to those local authority areas. Brexit and the UK Government's approach to post-Brexit immigration will have extremely serious consequences for communities the length and breadth of the country.

That is why the Scottish Government has argued consistently that if we are to leave the EU, which is something I do not agree with and bitterly regret, then there should be a sensible approach taken. We believe that the whole of the UK should remain in the single market and the customs union. And so long as there is a chance, however slim, of the UK adopting that approach, then we will continue to make the case for it.  

However, we also recognise the need to prepare as best we can for other Brexit scenarios. That is why we are undertaking a significant programme of contingency planning.

For example, we are targeting additional resources to those areas where the logistical and legislative impact of Brexit will be most acute.

We are also doing everything we can to support and provide information to EU citizens living in Scotland. As part of that, we have made the commitment to cover the settled status application fees, for EU citizens working in our devolved public sector.

In addition, we are taking action to protect Scotland's relationships with our European neighbours, by extending our network of innovation and investment hubs. And, through the Scotland Is Now campaign, we have redoubled our efforts to present Scotland as an open, welcoming, and outward-facing nation.

Now, I know that COSLA is also working hard with its members to prepare for Brexit. I have mentioned the work the Glasgow City Region has done with the Fraser of Allander Institute. I know that the City of Edinburgh begun a survey to identify workforce issues arising from Brexit - which COSLA then extended across all local authorities. And I know there are many other examples across different local authority of that preparatory work being done.

We welcome the leadership that has, and continues to be shown, both by COSLA and by local authorities across the country. And I would strongly encourage you as the Scottish Government will be doing to redouble your efforts in the months ahead so we can be as prepared as we possibly can be for whatever scenario unfolds in the weeks and months ahead.

Local government has not only an essential, but a critical role to play in preparing for the impact for Brexit and doing everything possible for us to mitigate that impact. The Scottish Government is ready to support your efforts in every way we can. By working together we undoubtedly stand a better chance of mitigating the worst impact Brexit, and of protecting the people and communities we serve, right across the country.

Of course, preparing for Brexit will be just one, albeit extremely important, strand of our joint activity, in the year ahead.

We will also take forward our integration of health and social care. It is the biggest reform of its kind since the establishment of our NHS, 70 years ago. Its implementation has already been a model for partnership working. And, as we set out in our recent joint statement, the Scottish Government and COSLA will continue to work together to step up the pace of reform.

That kind of partnership approach will also be essential to our expansion of early learning and childcare, one of the biggest projects that national and local government are now working in partnership to deliver.

As you know, in April, we were able to reach agreement the multi-year funding deal which will underpin and help deliver that policy. Under the agreement, the Scottish Government will provide local authorities with an additional £567 million per year, by 2021-22. We have also committed almost £500 million in capital funding so that local authorities are able to have the infrastructure in place to support that expansion.

That deal was the product of months of hard work, planning and negotiation. So I want to take this opportunity today to thank COSLA and COSLA members for your efforts, for your constructive approach to those discussions, and for the patience that was demonstrated as we came to an agreement on what was a very difficult, and at times, complex set of issues.

Of course, we now face the even harder task of rolling out the policy successfully across the country.

That will obviously require collaboration between local authorities and early learning and childcare providers. We see great examples of that, up and down the country, but it is also clear that some areas face real challenges.

That is why the Scottish Government and COSLA have set up the Early Learning and Childcare Partnership Forum. That aims to promote greater collaboration and understanding between the range of partners working in the sector.

It is one more way in which we are jointly taking action to ensure that this policy is delivered and that all of the children across the country that are intended to benefit from this, do benefit from this and as a result of that, get the best possible start in life.

We know there are complexities here but when we undertake a policy that has the scale of ambition that that one has then that is, perhaps, to be expected. What is important is just as we have done in agreeing the funding deal we work together to make sure we find ways through these complexities and deliver a policy that I think all of us are agreed will be very much in the interests of young people for generations to come.

Of course, that is also the aim of our education reforms.

As all of you know, earlier this year we consulted on proposals for a new Education Bill. The principles we set out, of putting power in the hands of school leaders, received fairly widespread support. However, we also heard concerns, including from local government, that enacting primary legislation would disrupt and slow the pace of reform.

We listened to those concerns and we responded. Instead of legislation, we worked closely with COSLA on a landmark agreement that will see sensible and important education reforms enacted without delay.

It means that beginning during this school year, local authorities will empower headteachers to take key decisions over curriculum, staffing and budgets.

That is a vital part of ensuring that professionals in our schools can take the lead in improving standards and raising attainment.

And it is a good example of what national and local government can achieve when we prioritise consensus and collaboration.

In the coming months, we will also work with you to explore the issues around a tourist tax. We recognise the strong views of COSLA and others that Local Authorities should have the powers to introduce one, where circumstances support that. We also recognise the opposing views of the tourism industry. So we have committed to hold a national discussion on the issue, which will give COSLA, the tourism industry and others with an interest in this, the opportunity to put forward their arguments and for those arguments to be carefully considered and for us to decide on that basis, of collaboration and careful discussion, on the right way forward. 

Finally, we will proceed with the work of our joint Local Governance Review.

The Review reflects our shared recognition that we need to bring decision-making closer to local people. That is a vital part of ensuring that resources are better targeted, that communities get the services they need; and that people have more control over the decisions that affect their lives.

So I very much welcome the commitment of COSLA and local authorities to that review and I look forward to working with all of you to deliver its aims.

These are just a few of the key issues that will form our shared agenda in the year ahead and beyond.

All of these issues and the many more that will no doubt occupy us in the year, and indeed, the years ahead have one thing that does bind them all together in common and that is the importance of us working together as we seek to meet and overcome what are significant challenges, but also to seize, what are, significant opportunities.

My pledge to you is that we will seek to continue to work constructively, in partnership with local government to strengthen the services we provide, to promote economic growth and fundamentally to improve lives of people across the country. And I know that is a commitment that COSLA and our local authorities share.

Working together, we have made real progress already in achieving our joint aims and if we continue in that spirit in the future, I think there is every reason to be optimistic that we will build on that success in the months and years ahead.

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