Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

Returning to the path we did not take – Cllr Alison Evison

The journey we’ve shared through the pandemic has been tough and it has left us with scars – inequalities have been magnified, there has been unsustainable pressure put on all our public services, including on the people who deliver them and on the purse that funds them. Moreover, we have realised along the way that climate change is about us and our lives and requires an urgent, collaborative response so that inequalities are not increased still further.

We’ve together reached a point where we have a choice of paths going forward. However, the one marked “opportunity, sustainability, fairness”, although on the surface welcoming, also seems to some across the spheres of government to be full of challenge and perhaps even threatening, because it requires that things are done differently. It can only be embarked upon if there is a real demonstration of trust, where every individual participant and community is empowered financially and functionally to innovate and develop, to respond to local needs, and where the spheres of government and third sector organisations demonstrate mutual respect and work efficiently as partners.

In fact, we have been shown this path before, over ten years ago by Campbell Christie in his much-quoted report. We have known deep down that this path is really the only choice we have as public resources have become ever scarcer, but we have never had the collective will to take it.  Vested interests, conflicting governance systems across public sector organisations and a reluctance to make the compromises that working collaboratively requires, have held us back.

There were aspirations to take this path when Local Government and Scottish Government considered the Local Governance Review, with the submission from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) in March 2019 being based on the three empowerments fiscal, functional and community.  Although there was some interest across the piece in community empowerment through participatory budgeting and community asset transfer, at the time the Scottish Government remained wary of empowering councils to raise their own additional income through discretionary taxation or even to allocate the annual budget settlement as local democratic choice saw fit.

In 2020 COSLA reflected on the path we did not take and produced its Blueprint for Local Government. This was an ambitious vision for Scotland’s future based upon the empowerment of people and communities, building on the local work councils had undertaken at pace with communities during the pandemic and recognising that without maintaining such work, inequalities would continue to grow. The warning was clearly given however, that the ambitions would only be achieved with proper resourcing for Local Government and with the growing trend of ring-fencing being reversed to deliver the solutions which work well locally.

Efforts were made in March 2021 to re-establish the shared journey when a strategic partnership between the voluntary sector and local and national government was launched to boost collaboration and promote system change, focussing first on understanding the barriers to achieving this across the sectors. It was clear from the start however that much would need to be done to create the space in which to establish fair and sustainable resourcing.

But to start out on the path which Campbell Christie had originally tried to persuade us to take together, requires not only an effective response to the warnings about resourcing and the lack of trust, but also a collective endeavour to overcome all the barriers. Transformative work on a new fiscal framework for Local Government, together with fair funding for those helping to deliver shared priorities locally, is essential to support the journey ahead. In increasingly hostile political climes, respect seems to have become harder to achieve and sustain, but without it a shared journey cannot happen. And unless we win over and empower the many communities which have become disillusioned by both the hesitancy around the path of opportunity and by the lack of resource at a local level, we will not be able to identify the best solutions to tackle inequalities across the diverse places of Scotland. This is not about further engagement – that does not bring about empowerment. We need to actively demonstrate shared resolve and that we can together achieve positive, locally effective, outcomes at pace. We need to prove the value of participation.

We have had recent positive signs with the New Deal for Local Government recommitting to partnership working, to exploring a new fiscal framework for councils and to delivering shared priorities. There is perhaps scope to revive at least the intent behind the European Charter for Local Self-Government which was passed unanimously by the Scottish Parliament in March 2021, before being determined by the Supreme Court as being outside the legislative competence of that Parliament. But crucially we do need to see recognition that the most effective work will be done at a local level in partnership with empowered communities.

What is clear is that we need to progress along the path of “opportunity, sustainability, fairness” and quickly if we are to address the inequalities across our country.  If we take the previously worn path of division and ineffective funding, we will carry on getting the same outcomes we have always had. We cannot afford that.

We need to return to the path we did not take.

 Councillor Alison Evison is an independent member of Aberdeenshire council and was President of COSLA from 2017 to 2022.

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