In Conversation: Local Governance Review in Scotland

Since the establishment of the Scottish parliament nearly 20 years ago, much of the focus of governance review has been at the national level. But a review of local governance has been underway for almost a year and the initial phase is now coming to an end. LGiU Scotland’s Kim Fellows has been speaking with Alison Evison, Aberdeenshire Councillor for North Kincardine & President of COSLA, and Aileen Campbell MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government, about the progress of the Local Governance Review.

LGiU Members can read the full briefing on the local governance review on the LGiU Scotland website.

Kim Fellows: The initial phase of the Local Governance Review you launched jointly a year ago is coming to an end and the next step will be an analysis of the submissions. It would be useful to hear your reflections on this first phase of working together.

Aileen Campbell: I think as the consultation draws to a close there has been a clear commitment that the analysis will be a shared endeavour between SG and COSLA. We aim to underline and strengthen the partnership between both spheres of governance – ourselves as national government, and COSLA representing the sphere of local government. We’re looking forward to hearing what people tell us through their consultation responses. I’ve been able to attend events across the country – sometimes they’ve not particularly been around Democracy Matters [the first strand of the Local Governance Review aimed at engaging communities], but they might’ve been about participatory budgeting. This has been a nice opening to discuss what powers and what controls communities feel that they would like to have. It’s been interesting hearing initial feedback from conversations that I’ve had at different points with different communities in different parts of the country, and hearing people beginning to awaken to the opportunity that presents itself with this review. I’m looking forward to reading the findings; I’ve been across the country recently talking to community groups about Democracy Matters. It’s been useful to understand that communities are thinking in critical and imaginative ways and hearing some of the challenges and barriers they currently face. Despite there being good legislation in place, I am sensing that people feel and want to take ownership of some of the decisions that are happening in their community.

Alison Evison: We’ve been working together with Scottish Government on this endeavour and it’s an example of real partnership work on the Local Governance Review. We launched it together, and we’ve been working through it together as well. I think the whole partnership shows how much we share outcomes, we share what we want to achieve across Scotland, and that’s a really important initial outcome.

In fact, the review of local governance has in some ways confirmed what we already knew; that both local and national Government share an ambition to focus on and strengthen local decision making in a way that improves the outcomes for all of Scotland’s communities. We know that this can only happen if all parts of government and all public services work together so a shared commitment to delivering the review in partnership is really important.

The review presents a unique opportunity for us to further empower our communities and we are excited about the ambitious opportunity this presents to truly be the start of a new way of thinking in Scotland.

Moving forward as well, we can carry on working together as we process the findings, the insights we get from people’s submissions and we can come to a shared understanding of what’s needed in governance terms across Scotland.

KF: Thank you very much. It would be helpful for our readers to know what will happen next and how the analysis will shape the next steps.

AC: There have been a couple of strands to this work. There’s been the work through public sector bodies, local authorities and the public sector more generally as well, thinking about this review from their perspective. For me though, the thing that I’ve been most closely engaged with has been around the community response and the community gatherings that have been inspired to take part in this consultation. Through listening to communities of interest and geographic communities about the barriers and challenges that people who have a disability might face, for example, who want to take part in decision making, and the decision making structures that currently exist within Scotland.

I attended a Glasgow Disability Alliance event and they were talking around how we need to be mindful and sure that this work aligns itself with other policy decisions taken right across government. For example, independent living – if somebody doesn’t have control and independence in their own life, how can we expect them to have the time to be able to contribute or think about what they might want to do around governance or decision making that’s happening in their community? There have been insights that we need to work through carefully and analyse. So that’ll be the next step in the process, to take stock, get the information that we’ve collected so far and work jointly with COSLA to understand the themes that are emerging. The next step will be to work out how we enable some of that thinking to be reflected in action and tangible outcomes that we are able to deliver jointly with local government and partners to ensure we retain the confidence of people and the communities that have taken part, and that they’ve not just spoken into a void. We have to demonstrate that people are listening, and taking action as well.

AE: What has become clear from the engagement so far is that change will require all of us to work together: communities, the third sector, national and local government.

It’s for this reason that this review has been particularly focussed on ensuring that all voices and all views are heard as effectively as possible with conversations taking place up and down the country. We’ve tried to do that in a different way from more conventional reviews in the past.  For example, the Enabling Group codesigned and delivered the Democracy Matters process, and we’re currently in the middle of regional events as part of that process.

We also know that there is a lot of work happening across Local Government.  This is taking different forms, and in many cases also involves local CPP (Community Planning Partnership) partners. Both strands of engagement are now drawing to a close, and we’re already anticipating a wide range of ideas and ambitions coming forward.

One of the key aspects for us in COSLA is ensuring that all public services are actively working together on this review. We know that this is a priority for Scottish Government, as it is for us, and we look forward to seeing that bear fruit.

What is really important to me now is that we continue to develop and build upon this process of learning to working together, not just in terms of the analysis of submissions, but how we continue to work together on potential solutions.

KF: Thank you both very much. I know the analysis has not yet taken place, but it would be really interesting to hear your personal views what sort of themes and issues are emerging.

AC: So from my perspective, I’ve heard from the events I’ve been to that some communities feel really positive about their relationship with local government around the engagement and interactions they have with their council, around how facilitative council services enable communities to take a bit of charge and control. And I’ve also heard where people feel they run up against barriers and maybe haven’t felt the level of trust they feel they need to enable them to move forward with a project or something within their community. And likewise, that message is clear to national government as well – it may be that communities feel there’s this bit of legislation but that doesn’t necessarily make it reality for them. So how do we make sure that those national aspirations translate into local action and local empowerment as well?

I think has been important to try to encourage people to understand that this is not just about the powers that local government have, this is about the totality of powers that exist at the moment, controlled by different people, agencies and organisations. That different public services and the communities they serve should think about and understand whether or not some of the things they do should be part of this conversation as well. So for instance, we had conversations around some decisions on health services as well and what does that mean for whatever this Local Governance Review ultimately looks like. Also, there have been people talking about frustration with relatively simple things like bin collections, and wanting to have a bit more charge over that as well. They want control over how individuals keep the community that you live in well cared for and looked after. So there’s lots of really interesting things that are coming through that are surprising, because I don’t know whether people would have thought that bin collection would’ve been something that people want to have a bit more control over. But that’s why we need to be responsive and that’s why it’s important this has been an open book, and asking the people of Scotland to populate the pages with their ideas and their thoughts about how to reimagine governance and structures within Scotland, and how does that enable people to do the things they want to do.

It’s also about us. It’ll be difficult for us in national government, because some of this will be quite challenging for us to overcome in how we respond to that desire across communities. However, it’s important we don’t create further inequality and we don’t only empower the already powerful people or just hear the voices that are already loud. It’s important that that analysis is done sensitively as well. I’ve asked my officials not to sanitise the findings. Whatever they find, it has to come to me and it has to be representative of the conversations that have taken place, because there’s no point in us not getting the full picture.

AE: Well clearly, we’ve still got work to do on that analysis and findings will be developed, as there are consultations and discussions and conversations going on.

Strand 1 is particularly involved with communities, putting forward their ideas and meeting together to discuss what they understand about local democracy in the local public services in their area, and to share and develop ideas.

Strand 2 more specifically involves local government itself, as well the rest of the public sector. It’s crucial that health and other public services are also committed to participate in the debate as it’s about local governance. We’re working through all these submissions and as they’re being worked through, we’re getting a feel for what we might end up analysing later on.

There’s nothing definite coming out yet, because the ideas and themes are continually evolving. However, for me as we talk to people, the themes that emerge so far are as follows. There is a real belief that one size doesn’t fit all across Scotland. We know this as well from our work with our communities, that what happens in a city does not happen in the country areas, it doesn’t happen in our island areas. We need to make sure that whatever comes out of this work has a principle of asymmetry, that understands localism – something that’s already shining out from the work that’s been done. I think a further theme is the idea of the value of collaboration, the notion that public services can and should work more effectively together and in partnership where we can. We, all public services, together, delivering for our communities, to achieve that important sense of place we need to truly and deeply work together. In addition it seems like communities and people are expressing an interest in becoming more able to participate in what’s going on in governance terms, to have more of a say in how things are delivered, and to feel more empowered so that they can get involved.

Importantly, there’s a tangible belief that democratic accountability matters, that we need to make sure that decisions are made with everybody in the community, helping to involve everybody, everyone being able to participate, that community interests shouldn’t be siphoned off to one side. That is a message for the whole process of democratic accountability across all of the public sector; clearly local government is directly elected so we are already committed to that approach and the strong sense of a need for democratic accountability shines through.

There also appears to be a view that sometimes it might be appropriate to work with partners in other local authorities and other public sector areas together with ideas that on occasion shared approaches might bring economies of scale. There’s a growing interest in exploring what’s possible around regions as well. This is something that can be considered in more detail in the next phase.

Crucially, an important theme appearing wherever we go, whenever we talk about the review and in the submissions that are coming in, is the need for fiscal empowerment. There is a substantial body of evidence and a lot of ideas being expressed in support of the idea that unless the finance follows the review, it doesn’t actually mean much. There’s a growing sense of the importance of fiscal empowerment, particularly for local government and for the public sector as a whole because the review firmly places the involvement of the whole of the public sector within a community focussed, person centred setting.

KF: The risk of widening inequality has been raised at some points in the dialogue. Is that something you are aware of?

AC: Absolutely. That’s something that we’re very clear on, and something we need to prevent, because this review could be an opportunity to reduce inequality. However if we don’t reach out, and don’t understand the barriers and challenges that people face within their lives inequality maybe adversely affected. Again, similar to that story around what I heard at Glasgow Disability Alliance, if somebody is struggling to make ends meet, having to cope with social security changes for example Universal Credit, that will be all consuming. How are we enabling that person to have a voice if they’re dealing with the demands of their life, juggling all that life brings to them? We need to understand enough and supportive enough to enable people, all people, to have a voice and express a view, and to be heard in that process. So I’m acutely aware that there’s a risk, a real risk that inequalities could widen if we don’t get this right, if we don’t make sure that everyone gets a chance to feed into this review and if we don’t have the discipline to understand that everyone has a view and should have an opportunity to contribute to flourishing and vibrant communities.

AE: I am extremely aware of the risk to inequality and that is why I want to make sure everyone’s voices are heard, listened to and acted upon. Voices from women, men, and from a wide variety of diverse groups and interests.

KF: Thank you both very much. Before we close this fascinating discussion is there anything you haven’t covered that you want to say to our readers? People will be interested to hear what will happen in 2019.

AC: From my perspective, a couple of times I’ve been asked at conferences why am I so committed to this, and why do I think this is a good thing to do. Part of my response is that I think that it’s up to us as politicians and policy-makers to catch up with what communities want to do, and have done for a number of years. I was at a place conference recently and I described how the village that I grew up near had a hall and a football pitch. My mum and dad were heavily involved with running the hall, being involved with the recreation club, and the hall was run for the community by the community – it’s where we had karate, the youth club, the social club, badminton club, there was a woman’s rural group, the Guild… a whole host of things were happening in that hall. It’s where I had my wedding reception as well because it was an important place for me to feel that I wanted to go back to. The reason I mention that is because it is an example of an empowered community, able to get on and do things and actually if they hadn’t had that, then I wouldn’t have had the opportunities I had growing up to experience going to a youth club or whatever, had it not been that people were able to have that ownership, take control and respond to the need of their community. I felt the benefit of that, so I feel it’s incumbent on me to help to make sure that that can happen in lots of different places. I suppose now we can retrofit that with terms like community empowerment, place-making and all the rest of it, but back then it was just what the community did, and what they’re still doing across the length and breadth of the country. It seems to me that it doesn’t happen everywhere, and that there are still too many barriers in place for communities to really feel a sense of charge and ownership over where they live. I think we know that decisions can be better made if communities are trusted to get involved, as long as we’re supportive. I want to support transformation in this the country and transform the governance of the country as well, which is a big responsibility for me but really one that I relish.

AE: Well, my message is one to everyone in local government and through them to public sector partners, as local government has the key to all community planning partners as well, and through that to the health, police and fire services. I say get involved. There are no set outcomes from this work – themes are emerging, but they are just emerging themes at the moment, other things might develop in time. We’ve got to make sure we hear voices from all our communities, and local government I believe has a particular role in encouraging community planning partners and others to offer views. It’s crucial that every group feels they’ve had a chance to participate in this work and makes the most of this opportunity. We’re looking at a chance to improve and develop the governance of Scotland to make it even more relevant for moving forward in the times we’re living in. To do that, we really need to listen to and hear as many voices as we can. So my call to local government is please encourage people to get involved, bring community planning partners on board, make sure that health is involved, make sure the police are involved. Help to make sure that the third sector is involved, as we’ve got so many voluntary organisations, it’s crucial that they get involved and put their ideas forward. They are so important in the delivery of local services that we need to hear their views as well.

So keep participating, put ideas forward and there will be a joint political oversight of the analysis in the New Year, that Aileen Campbell and I will both be involved in. So we’ll look at those findings together and we’ll come up with, not just emergent themes, but tangible outputs and outcomes.

KF: Can I ask you both for your final reflections?

AC: I think the next thing will be around the analysis and the shared work that we’ll do with local authorities and partners at the turn of the year, and then we’ll be able to articulate what the next steps are through the course of 2019 and backing the key findings. I also see that it’s intertwining with a lot of other work happening across different parts of government as well, and there’ll be an opportunity for me to work across different ministerial portfolios to help us as a government understand what this review can mean and how we can make things happen for communities.

AE: I am looking forward to what we can achieve together next; by focussing on local places, strengthening local democracy, and ensuring people are empowered to participate meaningfully in the decisions that affect them. What happens next will be shaped by what our communities, our citizens, and all of Scotland’s local public services have brought to the table.

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