Thank you, Glenn – and thanks to COSLA for inviting me. It’s always a pleasure to speak at this conference. I’m particularly delighted to do so this year – as you reflect on 20 years of devolution.
The re-convening of the Scottish Parliament of course represented a fundamental change in the constitutional arrangements of our country. It also – of course – heralded a new era for local government.
I know you heard earlier from Sir Neil McIntosh and I’m sorry to have missed his contribution. His report – 20 years ago – set out a vision for the future relationship between local government and the new Parliament. And that report has been instrumental in shaping that relationship – and the role of local government, in the years since then.
Among other things, it paved the way for the use of proportional representation in local government elections. It also inspired the 2007 Concordat between the Scottish Government and COSLA.
And while not all of the report’s recommendations were implemented, I think its central vision – of a close, constructive partnership between central and local government – has, by and large, been achieved.
That is not to say there have been tensions, that’s only natural. Of course, there have been difficulties. Given the tough public spending environment, that’s only natural. While we’ve tried to protect local government, you have often been on the frontline in dealing with the consequences of UK Government austerity.
So while there have undoubtedly been difficulties is not surprising, what’s much more striking is the continuing strength of the partnership we have.
Current examples of partnership
To get a sense of that, you only need to look at some of the areas where we’re currently working together. I will cite a few.
For example, today is World Homeless Day. Last November, the Scottish Government and COSLA jointly published our Ending Homelessness Together Action Plan. It included a commitment to support Housing First Pathfinder projects, in five of our cities. So far, those projects have helped more than 100 people to get support, and a home of their own.
There are other examples. Last Wednesday, I had the pleasure of visiting Sauchie Nursery in Alloa. I met some of the families who are already benefitting from our expansion of free early learning and childcare. With ten months until full roll-out, one third of eligible children are already accessing their additional hours. That is a credit to the partnership between local government and central government. We still have a long way to go – but together, we are making good progress.
We’re also continuing to work very closely together on the issue of Brexit. On Tuesday, the Scottish Government published an overview of our preparation for a possible No Deal Brexit, and an analysis of its potential impact. We worked very closely with local government and other partners to identify the risks – and potential mitigation measures – which are outlined in the publication. They include a £7 million fund to support vulnerable people which will be allocated to local authorities in the event of No Deal.
I want to put on the record my appreciation of all the work that local authorities are doing on this issue. At COSLA’s request, the Scottish Government has already provided £1.6 million to support your Brexit preparations. And we will continue to work in partnership with you, as we prepare – as far as we possibly can – for the impact of Brexit.
Now, I could talk about many other issues where we’re working together– such as education reform, mental health, and employability. But as well as talking about what we are doing together . I want to look at how we are working together. And in doing so, I want to highlight three key challenges and opportunities will be central to the next 20 years and beyond.
The first concerns wellbeing.
In 2017, the Scottish Government refreshed our national performance framework. It’s the set of indicators that we use to measure Scotland’s success.
Crucially, that Framework doesn’t simply measure economic growth. It looks at Scotland’s performance on issues as varied as income inequality; the wellbeing and happiness of children; access to green spaces; and people’s satisfaction with housing. None of those things are captured by traditional GDP measures; however they are all fundamental to a good society.
Of course, that broader definition of success is very relevant to the role of local government. Many of your services might not always produce any direct economic benefit. Yet they are essential to the health and wellbeing of people, across the country as a whole.
That’s why COSLA were partners all the way through the development of the framework. The views of local government helped to inform it and helped to improve it. Councillor Evison and I both spoke at its launch. And COSLA and the Scottish Government are the joint co-signatories to the document.
I think that’s hugely significant. It reflects our shared understanding – that government must focus not simply on the wealth of our nation, but on its wellbeing as well. And it will help to ensure that that focus underpins our decisions – and our actions – in the years ahead.
I think that provides a key template for our relationship in the years to come.
That focus on wellbeing is also very relevant to the second issue I want to talk about.
Two weeks ago, the Scottish Parliament passed our new climate change bill. It contains the most ambitious targets for reducing emissions, of any country in the world.
Now, setting those targets is the relatively easy part. But meeting those targets will require changes to how we travel, how we heat our homes and buildings, and how we plan and design our cities and our towns. Meeting these targets will need to be a truly national endeavour – where every sphere of government – and every sector – plays their part.
Of course, local authorities are already making a hugely important contribution to the fight against climate change. And your efforts – for example, to reduce transport emissions, promote energy efficiency, and manage waste – have already helped Scotland to make significant progress.
I know that many councils are now setting their ambitions even higher. City of Edinburgh – for example – has set itself the target of being carbon neutral by 2030. And Glasgow City Council aims to be the first net zero emissions city in the UK. It’s one more reason why Glasgow will be the perfect host for the UN climate change conference – COP26 – later next year.
We welcome that kind of leadership and that scale of ambition. And we recognise the hugely important role that local government will play – in decarbonising our economy.
That’s why we worked closely with local authorities in developing our latest programme for government. It sets out the next steps in Scotland’s transition to becoming net zero. And it details how we will work with – and support – local authorities in achieving that.
For example, we’ve announced that we will work with councils to upgrade – and further decarbonise – Scotland’s bus services. That work will be supported with half a billion pounds of investment.
We’ll also step up the work we’re doing with councils to pilot – and implement – Local Heat and Energy Efficiency Strategies. That’s – of course – an area with huge potential.
In August – I was in Stirling for the launch of a new District Heat Network, it’s a fantastic partnership between Stirling Council and Scottish Water. And it involves taking the heat found in waste water, and distributing it to local buildings. The Scottish Government helped to fund that project – and it’s exactly the kind of local initiative that we want to promote.
We’ve also announced that we will work with local government to establish a Green Growth Accelerator. That will be based on the Growth Accelerator Model – which has been used for Edinburgh’s St James Centre project, and the regeneration of Dundee’s Waterfront. That will enable local authorities to invest in, and attract greater private investment in, projects which reduce emissions and boost growth.
We will work closely with you to design it, over the coming months. Effectively, it’s a form of Green City-Region Deal. And it’s a good example of that strongly collaborative approach that we intend to take.
We know that achieving our net zero ambitions will require collective action – at local and national level. So we must find new ways of working together – and of maximising Scotland’s strengths.
Local governance review
Of course, that’s not just important for the fight against climate change. More generally, we need to ensure that everyone across our society can contribute their efforts – and their ideas – in addressing key local and national issues. That’s the third point I want to talk about briefly. We want to do more to empower individuals and communities.
Across the country there is a real appetite for more local decision-making.
The Transport Bill that is going through Parliament in its final stages today contains in it the new power for authorities around workplace parking - something that has been hotly contested in the Scottish Parliament.
But it is a power, it is not a duty.
It is illustrative of the approach of devolving more power to local authorities to allow local authorities to make those judgements and to take decisions that they think are right for the local circumstances and local needs.
Not all local authorities will want to use all of these powers but the whole idea is that it should be for local authorities to decide.
That’s the broader aim of our joint Local Governance Review. And I’m delighted that more than 4,000 people took part in its initial engagement phase. It’s clear that – across this country – there’s a real appetite for more local decision-making.
The Scottish Government and COSLA will now work with local authorities, partners and communities to develop the practical proposals, which will help achieve that.
Obviously, we don’t yet know the precise outcomes from this Review will be. But I am personally committed to ensuring that it can bring about positive and tangible change – and stronger local democracy. My hope – and I think this is an ambition we should grasp collectively - is that it will lead to the biggest decentralisation of power in Scotland – in the twenty years since devolution.
At the beginning of my remarks, I mentioned the McIntosh report. I want to close today by quoting from that document. Two decades on, I think what it says is still hugely relevant.
That report states:
'Parliament and local authorities alike …have a democratic mandate and a shared duty to serve the public to the very best of their ability
…relations between local government and the Parliament ought to be conducted on the basis of mutual respect and parity of esteem.’
Over the past 20 years, I readily concede we will often have fallen short of that vision. But we have succeeded in building a very strong and effective partnership. In doing so, I strongly believe we have made hugely positive difference to our communities – and the lives of the people we serve.
Our priority – the challenge and the opportunity - now must be to build on that record.
The Local Governance Review should help us to do that. It will ensure that the Scottish Government, local authorities and COSLA work together as effectively as possible. And it will help our partnership to adapt to the challenges – and opportunities – of the future.
So I’m grateful for this opportunity to speak to you, today. I want to again thank you for your service to your local communities. And I look forward to working with all of you – as together we build a stronger, fairer, greener Scotland – now and in the years to come.
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