Now local issues will take the national stage
NOT since the poll tax 20 years ago have local councils mattered so much. Back then, Labour’s regional battalions would gather for the annual meeting of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and denounce the evils of Tory government. Times have changed. After a decade of the Scottish Parliament, while it marked its turf, local government has emerged into the sunlight as a chum of Finance Secretary John Swinney and the government.
Cosla’s conference in St Andrews this week is scheduled to see the four main Holyrood party leaders courting councillors, recognising many of them are new to their jobs and in a bewildering array of coalitions – 17 configurations for 32 councils. The convention’s Labour presence, once dominant but now depleted by the new voting system, finds more in common with Mr Swinney than with their party’s Holyrood leader, Wendy Alexander. And that’s where this conference gets interesting. It will not just be about back-slapping with SNP ministers that £2.2bn has been released from ring-fencing, giving councillors freedom to reflect local priorities. Nor is it just that, after tomorrow’s Clackmannanshire meeting, all but one will have frozen council tax and the exception, Stirling, has cut it.
It is also that there is some tough stuff attached to those decisions. Budgets are tight. Recent headlines about the voluntary and charity sector facing uncertainty about grant funding are just one symptom, with more to come. And the new element is that each council is required to draw up a Single Outcome Agreement (SOA) with the Scottish Government. That is intended to deliver on shared priorities, though most are SNP manifesto pledges watered down by unaffordability. The subject is dry, but the implications are massive for the workings of government in Scotland, and the small print leaves some very big questions.
These become clearer in a draft of the outcome agreement seen by The Herald. It shows that, although the financial year starts in a month, these agreements will not be in place until late June. Councils can pick from “a menu” of 52 targets, so long as they help meet a set of 45 national indicators. This shifts government towards the language of 15 different outcomes aimed at six national purposes. Confused? Apparently, this is to improve transparency.
Government has previously tended to measure inputs (such as more teachers), but it wants to shift towards measurable outputs (improved pass rates at Higher) leading to outcomes (number four out of 15: “Our young people are successful learners, confident individuals, effective contributors and responsible citizens”). The theory looks attractive: the practicalities less so. How do you knowwhen young people have attained responsible citizenship? Audit Scotland has warned there is an urgent need to improve the performance management required if £16bn of council budgets for next year alone is to be properly spent.
One of the problems is that outputs and outcomes are confused, and outcomes are often too vague to be attributed to a council, government or anyone else. A global recession or climate change can blow all the targets off course, but that is hardly the fault of Orkney councillors.
The draft outcome agreement requires councils to figure out, in advance, “the nationally-agreed arrangements for attributing and addressing the causes of non-delivery of local outcomes”. Yet “many local outcomes will be long-term aspirationsthat will take years to achieve”. There is to be “mutual accountability” for that achievement, it says. Stop a moment to dwell on those words: mutual accountability. The draft says councils, government and other partners “will jointly take ownership and responsibility for their respective contributions to these outcomes”.
So consider the SNP back bencher who spoke for the party when she said: “This government is increasing the amount of nursery provision, is working with local authorities on supporting vulnerable young people and is increasing respite care for those families that need support.” Does that mean any failure to hit those targets will be shared with local government, or that the Treasury won’t be blamed? Don’t count on it. Holyrood ministers are making it clear councils have lots of money, and can take the rap if they don’t deliver, but they will be sure to accept any credit going. This looks more like an outsourcing of responsibility than a mutual project. Much of the outcomes agreement language rests on what is called “mutual respect and partnership”, and much of that can be attributed to Swinney’s people skills, getting round the country to win friends in council chambers.
But this is serious government, politically hard fought, with tight budgets and unattainable ambitions with the next three years’ money. Much wishful thinking has gone into the project so far. The difficult bits have barely started, and mutual accountability looks ideally placed for a return to the blame game of the Tory years, under new, untried rules.