COSLA conference 2023: First Minister's speech

First Minister Humza Yousaf’s speech at the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) annual conference, 28 September 2023.

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Can I say thank you to my friends and colleagues at COSLA for the invitation here today.

As you may be able to tell from my voice, I have a very, very serious case of the man-flu.

Thank you, that’s as much sympathy as my wife has given me thus far, as well.

So I'm trying to keep my remarks relatively brief because I want to get into the Q&A as much as I possibly can.

So it is my great pleasure to be here as First Minister of Scotland. I’m delighted I’m joined by a number of Ministerial colleagues throughout the day – I know Joe, of course, has been here, and has been the main conduit from Government, interacting with council leaders, with COSLA in the last six months.

And I’m delighted to be here on the back of signing that important Verity House Agreement. And that was incredibly important for me in the first 100 days to get over the line – not as just an agreement on a piece of paper, more importantly what does it mean in terms of implementation. How do we live it? How do we breathe the principles of the Verity House Agreement?

So I’ll go into some of that, no doubt, in my contribution but also, importantly, in the Q&A that we’ll have shortly thereafter.

There’s a lot for us undoubtedly to reflect on. I’ve noticed the theme for today is: Is Scotland living well locally? It’s a great question to be asking.

We are living in some of the most challenging times I think I have ever seen -undoubtedly I've ever seen in Government, and I don’t doubt, because you tell me regularly, some of the most difficult times that you have ever seen locally.

And that is because we have had a number of those so-called once-in-a-lifetime events taking place continually. I'm frankly pretty tired of seeing most once-in-a-lifetime events, I’m happy to see the back of a few of them, such as the pandemic; such as the challenges that Brexit has caused; and, of course, currently, the cost of living crisis; there’s sky-high inflation, and what that has done to people and businesses right across the country.

And obviously the David Hume Institute released the results with its latest cost of living survey of more than 2,000 adults across Scotland.

In summarising the results, Susan Murray, director of the David Hume Institute said, and I quote directly: More than one in four people are still losing sleep over their finances, and healthy food choices are slipping out of reach for significant numbers of comparatively wealthy people. This stores up health problems for the future.

What the David Hume Institute has observed is that the cost of living crisis is affecting communities today, but it will also continue to put pressure on public services in years to come. And that, for a country that has as much wealth as the UK does, I find to be unacceptable – and I suspect you also find it to be unacceptable.

So therefore, there is a challenge incumbent upon every single one of us – regardless of what sphere of government you represent. It is incumbent – it is an obligation upon us all – to think of innovative ways in which we try to raise revenue where we can; to invest in our services – locally and nationally – in order to help people during their time of greatest need. And this is, for so many people, their time of greatest need.

It then requires innovation. It then requires creativity.

And I look around this room – and I've had the pleasure of interacting with many of you over the years, the 11 years that I’ve been in Government in various different guises. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and interacting with many of you.

And that creativity, that innovation that is needed is in this room among us.

I see that at local government level time and time and time again. And I view our role in Government is to try to help you facilitate that, where we can.

Let me take a closer look at some of those creative ways in which we can hopefully help the people that all of us seek to represent.

I know for example, I’ve been told about the excellent work that East Renfrewshire Council is doing in terms of their cost of living dashboard, just a couple of weeks ago when I was at a financial services group by some senior members of the financial industry.

East Renfrewshire Council – their corporate management team – wanted much greater insights into how the cost of living crisis was affecting communities in real-time, so engaged the Smart Data Foundry in a pilot project. That's helped East Renfrewshire Council to combine different data sets safely and in a way that is easily understood to have an interactive map, or dashboard, for the very first time.

It’s now a year on since the pioneering partnership began and the findings show that financial wellbeing shifts up and down for different demographics over a period of time. Data, we know, if used correctly, if used appropriately, if used wisely, can be one of our greatest tools in terms of how to target our resources where they’re needed the most.

When I look at a number of other areas where we have shared interests, another of our shared interest areas – tackling poverty – you have my absolute, resolute determination, solidarity and willingness to work alongside you in tackling what is the defining mission of the Government I lead.

And we will do everything we can to use our resources on that.

The second one, which is not unrelated, is, of course, that collective fight that we all have to engage in in tackling climate change and taking climate action, that race to net zero which we all have to be involved in.

I think I can safely say that this summer, for all of us – for the world in fact – has been a wake-up call. Which one of us could not have been moved by the devastation that we saw right across the world affecting local communities in Europe, in Asia, the African continent, and US and right across South America, too? Which one of us could not be moved by those devastating scenes?

On the plus side, I was in New York, as many of you will know, last week, at Climate Change Week and there was a number of local governments, national governments, devolved governments, sub-nationals – right throughout the spheres of government, right across the world represented.

And there was a real understanding from the UN that at a local level, action taken at a local level can help to change the course of climate history.

But we know there are challenges.

When the public sector is squeezed, when resources are strained, working towards net zero can feel like another difficult budget line.

So what I will seek to do in Government is be your partner in relation to the difficult choices we’re going to have to make – because we have to make them, too.

We have to be confident in our arguments, but also we have to be, I think, quite assertive about the fact that tackling climate change, and the race towards net zero, is not just morally the right thing to do – and that it absolutely is – economically and for the health of our country, it is also the right thing to do as well.

So when I look at where the journey to net zero will lead us – savings, efficiencies, modernisation, I think about the project at South Lanarkshire Council, in terms of their IT infrastructure to a renewables-powered data centre as part of their IT transformation programme.

Updating that digital infrastructure has helped the council to improve services and reduce the carbon footprint very significantly indeed.

In a similar vein, in a place that’s very close to my heart and close to my home – when I think about the work that the Eden Project, that Dundee is doing. The former gas works in East Dock Street by the River Tay provided fossil fuel power to Dundee for over a century.

Now, as many of you know, the site will become home to the Eden Project Dundee, which entered its second phase of development just last year. It will contribute jobs – 200 jobs – and a projected £27 million per year to the regional economy.

And it has a real catalyst, a blueprint actually, to show you what the just transition looks like from fossil fuels to a net zero future.

When we ask that question on living well locally – the other area of great focus for the Government that I lead will be on social care.

I know how our partnership on social care, how important that is given I was Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care previously.

When I think about the National Care Service and the compromises that have been made in this regard, I hope that is a demonstration of how we’re willing to work with local government to ensure that this is truly a partnership.

The National Care Service, although it will be national, as the name obviously suggests – we’ll have that national framework – how do we make sure services are locally co-designed, and, there’s no doubt, locally delivered, too.

We’ve managed to find some compromises which I think will hopefully be to the benefit of the people that we collectively serve.

But be in no doubt, there can be no NHS recovery, I believe, without a firm social care recovery too.

In terms of the other really important obligations, important areas of focus for us, I am very, very keen that we are open-minded as a Government to public sector reform.

My colleague, the Deputy First Minister, will be leading on some of that work.

Where innovation comes from local government, we will absolutely be open to that.

Our joint work on No One Left Behind, that person-centred focus on employability, is a good example of that; our willingness to engage with partners, for example, single island authority models being explored by colleagues in Orkney and Western Isles Council. We genuinely believe in that principle that is embedded within the Verity House Agreement, which is local by default, national by exception.

I am going to stop in just one moment, but before I do, the very last point that I wanted to make was that it has been a difficult few weeks, and we know that, with the strikes that are ongoing.

And at the heart of it, my genuine belief is that local government and national government – we both very much value our local government workers and staff.

We know that everything you do – everything you strive for – cannot be done unless we fairly pay our staff, and I have been very impressed by the fact that COSLA, unsurprisingly, have that at the heart of their negotiation efforts.

And I can give you a further assurance that we will be alongside you during these difficult times. But we all know, if we have a staff cohort who is valued, then the outcomes will be better for everyone.

So we’ll continue to work alongside COSLA when it comes time for further discussions that are required.

On that, I’m going to leave it there. Thank you very much, and I look forward to your questions.

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