CoSLA Gets Grumpy

The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities is, even by its own admission, something of an anorak organisation. Tucked away in the monolithic glass-and-concrete office blocks trapped between the endless tram works on Haymarket Terrace and the endless trains streaming through Haymarket station, its couple of dozen staff spend their time trying to speak for the 32 councils that cover Scotland.

Once almost entirely a Labour fiefdom, that all changed in 2007 when all but three councils swung out of Labour’s overall control and the SNP became a comparable force in CoSLA by sending, for the first time, a comparable number of delegates. We’ll leave CoSLA’s organisation and effectiveness in its role to another blog.

The key issue is that, pre-2007, despite Labour dominating both it and the Scottish Executive (as the Scottish Government was then styled) they went at each other in best stairheid rammy tradition. SInce 2007, the Concordat, the lifting of restrictions like funding ring-fencing, new and enlightened leadership from President Pat Watters and realpolitik breaking out among the more balanced delegate coherts, all led to five years of constructive dialogue and real progress in government/council relations.

The first shift came in 2011 when the SNP suddenly dominated the Scottish Parliament with 69 MSPs—the first majority enjoyed there—and the mood music changed, Cabinet Secretary John Swinney, whose brief includes local government, did not change but the SNP’s tail had gone up and more ambitious, if not abrasive, statements started to emerge. At the same time, the Local Government brief was handed to Aileen Campbell—young, bright but split new into the job of MSP, let alone in wrestling with council neanderthals from darkest Lanarkshire.

That lasted a short time before Derek Mackay, also part of the young & bright MSP intake but with four years of leading Renfrewshire Council and the SNP delegation to CoSLA, a more experienced hand. Trouble was, Derek was so highly thought of, he was also given the SNP Business Convener gig, formerly handled by party heavyweight fixers Bruce Crawford MSP and Angus Robertson MP.

But, nonetheless, the CoSLA—SG relationship continued to work in a far more constructive manner than it had pre-2007. Key issues like pay negotiation or council tax freeze were tabled, discussed and agreed; various policy initiatives affecting councils like alcohol minimum pricing or police/fire reform were aired and, if not concluded, were seen as useful exchanges of position.

But roll forward to last month, when the council elections saw a significant number of council administrations alter on the backs of the results, and we may yet see the most significant outcome of those elections be the CoSLA delegate allocations made by the new administrations.

Delegate numbers are proportionate to the size of council (generally 3 to 6) and CoSLA policy (unenforceable) is that they should reflect the political composition of the council. So, whereas my own East Lothian had once sent 3 Labour delegates pre-2007, we sent one each Labour, SNP and Lib-Dem for the 2007-12 sessions. Both Lanarkshires had kept their pre-2007 thinking and had each sent 6 Labour delegates.

This meant, despite winning more council seats than Labour, SNP delegates to CoSLA were outnumbered. What kept CoSLA balanced, however, were healthy delegations of (in order of size) Independent. Lib-Dem and Tory councillors. CoSLA roughly reflected the average council where SNP & Labour held the biggest groups but neither dominated alone. But the demise of the Lib-Dems has changed much in council control and the net makeup of CoSLA will not become clear until its first full meeting on June 29th.

In North Lanarkshire, Council leader Jim McCabe, a long-time CoSLA delegate and believer in the justification for Labour dominance, told the Wishaw Press: “The job we have here is to make sure the council is best represented on any forum.” As a result, all six of its delegates are again Labour.

In Falkirk, the politically awkward set-up of Labour/Tory administration will take three of the four positions and their is every indication that major councils like Aberdeen and Stirling with the same type of administration will follow suit. The latter is likely to be especially one-sided as Leader Corrie McChord has ambitions to replace Pat Watters as President and will want to secure as many delegates as he can to beat the SNP’s Rob Murray, a veteran CoSLA vice-president and Leader of the newly revived SNP in Angus.

Since Labour controls only four councils outright, with four minorities, while the SNP controls two with three minorities, it might seem a close run thing. But, on top of four LAB/CON councils, others are making unionist noises about keeping the SNP down in local government to help balance their uppitiness in the Parliament. Of the other coalitions, six exclude the SNP entirely, while another six have some form of SNP presence in the Administration.

Given the co-ordinated aggression with which the SNP was systematically excluded from power where that was feasible, the chances of delegates being assigned on the same principles seem low. The 11 where the SNP have a say are likely to follow the practice from 2007 of allocating delegates proportionally. But if the 18 others (3 are wholly independent-run) follow Jim McCabe’s partisan lead, the years of partnership between CoSLA and the government is about to be replaced by partisanship.

As the relevant minister, Derek Mackay has already registered his concern that a more hostile, not to say obstructive, era may be about to dawn. Holyrood quoted him saying:

“I have to express some concern at early indications that some local authorities are appointing delegate entitlement entirely for the administration. That doesn’t seem to respect the COSLA guidance on proportionality and fairness in representing the political composition of the local authority.”

With their eight official spokespersons and working groups, backed up by CoSLA staff, the opportunity for guerilla actions and PR bouts with the Scottish Government is huge. Issues such as pensions, pay freeze, budget limits, shared services, ballooning services for the elderly, etc are all hot topics already and allies in unions or segments of the public to make them hot-spots would not be hard to find.

But the whole edifice of Concordat, Single Outcome Agreements, council tax freeze and joint working across public agencies, so carefully constructed over the last five years, could be in jeopardy. Perhaps leaders like McCabe are not prepared for the equivalent of local government civil war because their own budgets could get even worse than they are. But with the independence debate representing as serious a decision as any generation has confronted, why wouldn’t a dedicated unionist use every weapon to hand to derail it?

About davidsberry

Local councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Stood for the Scottish Parliament 2011; lost by 151 votes.
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