In taking over as COSLA President I was keen to promote the role of local government within the governance structures of Scotland and the UK, and to consider how to strengthen local democracy within either the UK or an independent Scotland. I’m a strong believer in local democracy and local service delivery which is responsive to the needs of local communities, and now is the ideal time to take stock of what we want local government in Scotland to be, and what we want it to achieve.
This is being taken forward through COSLA’s Vision for Local Government in Scotland. This includes enshrining local government as an equal partner in the governance of Scotland via constitutional protection.
COSLA’s Vision for Local Government encompasses the need to empower local democracy to ensure locally delivered and accountable services are sensitive and responsive to local issues. It also focuses on integration not centralisation, as the problems facing society cannot be solved by simplistic structural change, and history dictates to do so is costly and high risk, with no significant improvement in outcomes. The Vision further emphasises an outcomes based approach, and recognises councils focus on performance and opportunities for improvement. Some may argue current local democratic arrangements fail to deliver and lead to so called ‘postcode lotteries’. I’d disagree with that as variation in service delivery reflects legitimate local democratic choice and control about priorities and circumstances. However, it’s also important to recognise where variation is caused by poor decision making or service quality, local government collectively must be prepared to self-analyse through effective benchmarking.
So, the COSLA Vision for Local Government poses a variety of questions for regeneration. Could local authorities do more in terms of regeneration if they had enhanced powers and more control over regeneration and economic development functions? I would argue they could.
Could councils taking on more responsibility and powers in relation to regeneration lead to increased social justice? Currently our enterprise agencies focus on sustainable economic growth: that is the Scottish Government’s main policy objective. However, they fail to consider re-distribution of wealth or opportunities, social injustice and deprivation; which many local authorities spend huge amounts of money addressing such failure demands.
Could or should local government have a greater say in economic development, and should this be devolved down to local level, as opposed to national agencies taking the lead? Again I would argue we should have greater responsibility, and while focussing on growth I’m sure local authorities would enhance the regeneration of communities, and therefore reduce inequality, and in turn reduce the money spent on addressing failure demand. Currently the enterprise agencies do not have re-distribution to the fore in their thinking; I ask the question perhaps they should.
Some regeneration and economic development functions were previously transferred to councils, but could more be done at a local level, rather than by national enterprise agencies, if we had enhanced powers? Business Gateway is a good example of a service being taken on by local government and being successful, there is no reason we couldn’t have a similar situation with other regeneration or economic development functions.
These are pertinent questions to consider particularly in relation to the regeneration of local communities, and we need to think innovatively about how local authorities could better contribute to the regeneration agenda now, or with further powers or responsibilities, and how communities are engaged in this process. At the heart of all these questions is the need for empowerment in order to deliver local services; and that empowerment does not have to stop with councils, but should filter down to communities, who really are the experts in terms of what is required in their local area.
Local government has a clear role to play in regeneration at a local level. However much national policy has a regeneration focus: such as the National Planning Framework 3, Infrastructure Investment Plan, to the Scottish Government’s Regeneration Strategy itself.
COSLA continues to be engaged with Scottish Government in relation to the Regeneration Strategy. A significant part of which is the Regeneration Capital Grant Fund, jointly created by COSLA and Scottish Government, and launched in April. While COSLA is in principle opposed to challenge funds, I’m pleased by the joint work between Scottish Government and COSLA on this fund, which emphasises the holistic nature of regeneration, and require the demonstration of strong regeneration outcomes, and I look forward to seeing the projects which are awarded funding and the difference that these will make within communities across Scotland. Likewise COSLA is committed to working alongside Scottish Government in the development of the Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill to ensure the legislation is meaningful, practical, and does not raise unrealistic expectations or create unnecessary burdens for local authorities.
Individual local authorities are also leading the way on regeneration activity.
From Dundee’s cultural-led approach to regeneration, to Glasgow and South Lanarkshire’s work as part of Clyde Gateway, to my own council North Ayrshire, where through Irvine Bay URC improvements have been made to stations, parks, and churches, with the involvement of local young people and provided them with employment opportunities. Other initiatives in North Ayrshire include: work on the historical centres of Kilbirnie and Irvine; community capacity building by the Council and Cunninghame Housing Association; and programmes to tackle unemployment by working with companies to discuss their recruitment and skills needs. These are just a handful of examples, and I know there is plenty more good work going on in councils across Scotland.
COSLA and our members could both contribute to and benefit from the SURF’s Alliance for Action work, and there are clear linkages to the wider reform work which COSLA is driving through the Community Planning Review. The focus for all has to be on bringing together relevant partners to join together their work locally in order to improve outcomes for local communities, and we shouldn’t lose sight of that goal. Creativity may well be the key to unlocking the resources and joint working needed to deliver effective regeneration activity in communities. This is even more important in the current economic situation, and it is crucial we get the best outcomes we can out of the resources that we have at our disposal, and partnership working and joined-up thinking is vital to achieving this.
I’m a firm supporter of local government and local decision making which gives councils flexibility to deal with local issues, meets the needs of local people, and improves the lives of communities. Effective local regeneration has a vital role to play in this by helping improve economic, social, and environmental outcomes for local communities and delivering the Vision for Local Government in Scotland. That said: partnership is also needed across local authority boundaries; with Scottish Government, Enterprise Agencies, other CPP partners, and organisations like SURF all contributing to the regeneration of communities across Scotland. The economic climate is still harsh and partnership working is now more important than ever.