Open Letter to Nicola

I hope you’ll forgive the presumption but I have already tried writing in confidence to all four of your party’s members of Holyrood’s previous Local Government Committee and even to the Minister at the time (Marco Biagi). Unfortunately none saw fit to send anything by way of reply—although Marco’s staff was good enough to acknowledge my missive.

First of all, sincere congratulations are due, both for a decisive win in the recent election and for a well merited return to the post of First Minister. But that now means the task of selecting a cabinet who will best assist you to, as you put it:

keep a laser like focus on the economy and the need to generate revenue to invest in our future…in a constantly evolving and challenging global environment, with the potential for renewed economic turbulence internationally, it is vital that we make sure Scotland is as well-equipped as possible to make a success of our considerable economic strengths.

While I would not presume to suggest its composition, I do ask that you consider that—from close observation of the SNP administration over the last nine years—local government should register more highly in cabinet consideration.

Significant number of your experienced members have considerable local government experience: Derek Mackay; Bruce Crawford; Richard Lyle; Kevin Stewart; Kenny Gibson; Keith Brown; Joe Fitzpatrick, to name just a few. Marco—bright and decent though he was—offered no such experience and displayed scant interest in pushing his brief, all of which sent a lamentable message to those who toil diligently as much as full time to get their chests prodded regularly for £16k.

After the positive start made by John Swinney with the Concordat and ‘parity of esteem’ in 2007, the hollowness of that and downplaying of councils’ roles became obvious (as well as embarrassing for your members). Council tax stayed frozen; no serious effort was made to reform local finance; last year’s budget hit councils particularly hard with ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ indifference. Your 400+ SNP councillors apparently were expected to stay well in the background and not rock the referendum boat.

But, now that your party soared over this month’s parliamentary hurdle and there is little likelihood of a second referendum soon, this would appear the opportunity to turn your and your closest colleagues (not to mention the Chief Executive’s) skeptical attitude to the usefulness of local government. As none of you have such experience, this is, perhaps, understandable—especially so where you own experience is against Glasgow Labour ‘machine politics’. But consider this before you continue to degrade councils into biddable extensions of the government.

  1. There are ten times more councillors than MSPs ; most come in daily contact with their public and are personally known by them.
  2. Though many councils are not SNP-run, only a few are Labour-run and even those are no longer a phalanx of old-guard opposition to an SNP government
  3. The public’s sour attitude to politicians is widespread. They don’t understand the system; they gravitate to single issues that matter to them; they prefer social-based civic organisations like WFI.
  4. Only councillors are numerous and widespread enough to reconnect public ambitions with a government that has the power to achieve them.
  5. A wider belief in something as momentous as independence can be led, but not generated from the top; rebuilding trust required involves reconnection of the public from the bottom up.
  6. Devolution good enough for Government is good enough for councils.
  7. Council finance reform is overdue; more like 50% should be raised locally
  8. Over-centralisation leads to arrogant government and to lazy government
  9. Council reorganisation is essential, perhaps into a few city regions and many much smaller burghs with minimal staff
  10. Local, visible control is the antidote to bureaucracy and disenfranchisement. It can generate civic participation

As SNP leader (with years in its leadership) you must understand more than most that speaking to the YES 45% is preaching to the choir. One in five of the other 55% must change their mind to make another referendum sensible, let alone winnable. Meantime, demonstrating competence and spreading affluence demands growing the economy and budgeting for the most good with the least expenditure.

For councils to spend their 1/3rd judiciously, they must be active partners and not passive executors—as dictated in this year’s SNP budget.But even the best-led 63 MSPs cannot speak to, let alone galvanise the wider public without those 1,200+ councillors working enthusiastically with your government and not dragging their heels in resentment.

It is not just in parliament that cross-party consensus is called for. If Tories and Labour are serious about forward thinking, then their councillors too, plus all the ALEOs, quangos, trusts, charities and sundry other civic initiatives in which they are involved could galvanise grass roots Scotland to also play their part in this awakening of Scots and their potential in which you rightly place so much faith.

Local government is not the enemy; it is actually the best ally available to you

About davidsberry

Local ex-councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Retired in 2017.
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