It’s a real pleasure to join you, and it’s a particular pleasure to speak to you all so soon before the end of another local government term.
As we reflect on the past term, I think it’s fair to say – and I can say without fear of contradiction – that as we were contemplating the last local government elections and looking forward, nobody who was working in local government or for COSLA at that time - could possibly have foreseen what the past five years have brought.
These have been, thanks to the COVID pandemic, the most difficult in our post-war history. But local government has been essential and invaluable in our response to that.
Over the last two years, local government has distributed food and medicines to people who were shielding. You have ensured children have had continued access to education. You have delivered rapid economic support for businesses and individuals. You have helped keep communities running – with vital services such as bin collections continuing notwithstanding the challenges of lockdown. It’s an understatement for me to say that local government has made a real difference to people and businesses across the country over this period.
The first and perhaps most important thing I want to do today is simply to say thank you. Thank you for everything you have done over the past five years – particularly thank you for everything you have done and your work with the Scottish Government during the two years of the pandemic.
These past two years, have in fact, have been a reminder – if any were needed – of just how essential local government is - to the prosperity of businesses, to the wellbeing of communities, and to the happiness of individuals and families.
And it follows on from that, that no national government can expect to be successful in achieving our policy objectives, unless we build, maintain and value a strong working relationship with local government. The Scottish Government is determined to do that.
I also want to be frank. That doesn’t mean that our relationship is, or will always be, easy. In the current financial climate – especially with significant spending pressures requiring difficult decisions of all of us – it would be remarkable if there weren’t sometimes tensions between us.
But we shouldn’t, even though we must acknowledge and address those tensions, overstate the impact of them either. By working together – and by focusing on improving outcomes for the people we collectively serve - we have achieved a great deal over the last five years. And the response to COVID is just one example of that.
A related issue is our joint work on public health - since Public Health Scotland’s establishment just two years ago, at the outset of the pandemic, it has been governed through a joint sponsorship arrangement between COSLA and the Scottish Government.
Another example is the expansion of childcare. The fact that all three and four year olds - and two year olds who might most benefit - now have access to 1140 hours of early years learning and care, is without a doubt one of the key achievements of the past five years.
And of course just last week, COSLA and the Scottish Government announced an independent review of councillor remuneration. I accept that might not have the same resonance or appeal with the public as the other issues I’ve just mentioned, but it’s a really important part of our joint work on removing the barriers to becoming a councillor, and helping to ensure that councils are more representative of the communities they serve.
Indeed, the importance of that issue, is something which Alison has brought to the fore during her presidency of COSLA – which I may come from a completely unbiased perspective in saying would show the benefits of having more women in leadership positions. I want to thank her and pay tribute for that. I think it’s good and encouraging that we’ve seen some progress in the last week.
The focus of my remarks today, though are on future challenges, rather than past achievements. In particular, I want to discuss three key priorities for national and local government over the next five years – COVID recovery, the climate crisis, and how we work together even more effectively in the future.
The first of those – which I’ll spend the most time on – is COVID recovery
Two days ago, the Scottish Government published our updated strategic framework. Marking we hope one of the final stages in the journey that we have made through the pandemic – from responding to COVID through legal restrictions, to relying instead on advice, guidance and adaptations.
And as we make that transition, work on recovery has already begun.
Local government is a crucial partner in helping us to plan and implement that recovery – indeed, Alison (Evison) is co-chair of the Programme Board for the Covid Recovery Strategy.
I think the reason for the importance of that joint work is evident if you look at the three major themes of the strategy. Firstly, improving outcomes for children and young people.
Local government is crucial in helping the education system to recover from the impact of the pandemic. That’s why we have committed significant additional funding which – amongst other things – will help local authorities to recruit additional teachers and support staff.
Local government will also be key partners as we continue to expand childcare. In this parliament we will start to make funded early years provision available to all one and two year olds – beginning with low income households.
The second strand is about increasing financial security for low income households.
Alongside longer term work – promotion of fair work and the living wage – the Scottish Government and COSLA are currently working together to tackle the cost of living crisis.
Earlier this month, the government announced a package of financial support for those hardest hit. It provides £150 for all households that receive a Council Tax Reduction or other households occupying a property in bands A to D.
Local authorities are responsible for administering this support – and our preference is for it be delivered as a payment, rather than a council tax credit. Following engagement with COSLA - and in recognition of the big challenges in delivering the support quickly – we have agreed flexibility on this point, as long as the support is delivered by the end of April. That’s another example of an area where, by working together, we are helping those in need.
The third strand of the recovery strategy is about the provision of good green jobs and fair work.
Next Monday, we will publish our strategy for economic transformation.
That sets how we will build a fairer and greener economy in the decade ahead.
And one of the things that strategy will highlight, is the work of regional economic partnerships - and the role local government is playing in city and region deals. More generally, it will have a really strong emphasis on regional and place-based initiatives - ensuring that communities in every part of the country are good places to live and work. Again local councils are a key partner in that.
It’s maybe worth just adding –I know that Michael Gove spoke to you earlier – that we will try to work constructively with the UK government on its Shared Prosperity Fund.
We do though have serious concerns that the fund will not match the level of support previously provided by European Structural Funds.
It also seems likely that the funds will be delivered in a way that goes against the current devolution settlement, and the Statement of Funding Policy. Quite apart from the principled issue this causes, it could cause practical issues by making it harder to co-ordinate different funding streams.
Fundamentally, though we welcome additional resources, we remain disappointed that Scotland’s proposed approach – which COSLA was very involved in shaping – has been rejected by the UK Government. However, we will of course continue to work with the UK Government and local government to try to make sure that these resources make a difference to communities across the country.
A further area which our strategy for economic transformation will highlight – as you would expect – is the opportunities and the challenges of course of our progress to net zero.
That’s the second priority for the future that I want to touch on briefly.
One of the key events of last year, of course, was COP26 in Glasgow. I was pleased to see COSLA and local government so prominently represented, not least at the Cities, Regions and Built Environment day.
One of the points that was commonly made in Glasgow, is that the current decade is arguably the most important in human history – the decisions that people across the world make in the next few years, will decide whether large parts of our planet remain habitable.
In Scotland we are determined to lead by example in taking the decisions- including tough decisions – to enable us to meet our climate change targets.
And councils again are essential partners. In fact, many councils have promised to achieve carbon neutrality even earlier than 2045- something which shows how important councils can be in leading our move to net zero.
Many of the key areas where we need to make progress – such as decarbonising transport use, and restoring natural habitats, are ones where councils have a central role to play. So you will be essential to ensuring a just transition – where we hope no individuals or communities are left behind.
So once again, the climate crisis – which remains the most significant issue the world faces – is an area where the Scottish Government, if we are to achieve our ambitions, must work closely, constructively and respectfully with local government.
And that, I suppose, brings me onto my third and final point. I mentioned earlier how momentous, difficult and challenging the past five years has been for local government, and for national government.
But if we look at some of the issues I’ve highlighted just now –net zero transition, and the importance of COVID recovery - it’s clear that the next five years are not going to be quiet or easy, they are going to be just as difficult, challenging and significant.
We need to meet some immense challenges, while continuing to focus on improving outcomes.
And so it is more important than ever that we work together effectively.
I mentioned earlier that tensions in the relationship between local and national government are sometimes inevitable. In a democracy they are also, perhaps, sometimes healthy. So we should not shy away from the mutual challenge they can deliver. But of course we need to recognise those tensions are exacerbated when, as now, funding is tight.
There’s also a tension between the need for local flexibility, and the desire or need for national accountability and standards.
I know that particularly in relation to the proposed National Care Service, COSLA does have concerns that current proposals strike the wrong balance between national and local governance.
But notwithstanding our strong commitment that we intend to deliver a National Care Service, we hope that we can first and foremost listen and work constructively with you to try to address and resolve these concerns as we take the legislation through parliament.
The main point I want to reiterate is that despite the causes of these tensions – good, bad, healthy, unhealthy – and the reasons that lie behind them, we shouldn’t allow them to obscure how much we have done and can do by working together.
All of the issues I’ve highlighted today are significant and have a big impact on people’s lives. They have been made possible, childcare for example, by that constructive relationship. I want to give a commitment that I will work with local government over the next five years to seek to strengthen that partnership even more.
That is a key reason why we continue – despite last year’s Supreme Court decision - to support the incorporation of the European Charter of Self-Government into Scots law. We believe – as does COSLA - that doing that will help to protect and promote local government.
We will also continue to work with COSLA on our joint local governance review. And we will introduce a local democracy Bill before the end of this parliamentary term.
Our ambition – one which I know is shared by COSLA – is to devolve more powers to local councils and local levels of democratic decision-making. Initiatives such as participatory budgeting give us some idea of what can be achieved – but we do want to go further.
I know that COSLA is ambitious for devolution to go further – and I am hopeful that the local governance review will lead to significant changes. It’s in all of our interests, that councils and your local partners have the right powers, to respond to local circumstances. And it is in all of our interests, for the partnership between national and local government to be as strong and effective as possible.
I spoke at the start about the extraordinary role that local government has played in our pandemic response.
But the contribution that councils make is evident – and essential – at all times.
The commitment of councillors – of all political views – to providing and strengthening local services is something that is hugely valued by the Scottish people and by the Scottish Government.
So ahead of the elections in May, that are now looming, I want to take this opportunity to thank all of you, once again.
Regardless of whether you are leaving your post or standing for re-election as councillors – your service, over the past five years, is appreciated. I want to thank you for it.
That includes of course the service of Alison as President of COSLA; Graham (Houston) as vice-president, and Gail (Macgregor), Kerry (Parry), Stephen (McCabe), Steven (Heddle) and Stuart (Currie) as spokespeople. It is never easy representing a cross-party organisation – especially one which has to capture the perspectives of different local councils across the country. But as I found and experienced in my recent discussions with the aforementioned over the budget settlement, you have been very effective in speaking with one voice. I want to pay tribute to you for that.
Finally, whatever happens in May, I look forward to continuing to work with COSLA, and with individual councils, as we deliver our recovery from the pandemic and look forward, I hope, to a much brighter future.
We have a lot of work to do. None of it will be easy –inevitably there will be times when we disagree. But I know that – by working in partnership – we can and will meet the challenges of the future.
And help build a better, fairer, greener and more equal Scotland – for all of the communities we serve.
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