The role of Spokesperson for Resources has responsibility for both Finance and Employers, so, like my colleagues, I have a very busy but exciting brief over the next 12 months and, I must say, I am already thoroughly enjoying the challenge.
In terms of Finance, the key priority for me at present is the Spending Review. We all appreciate that it’s a very challenging time financially for the whole of the public sector, but I know we have a shared ambition with the Scottish Government to promote growth and tackle inequalities in our communities. I strongly believe that fair investment in local government is essential to meet these ambitions and I want to present a strong, positive case for local government as part of the spending review negotiations.
I have now met with the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Constitution twice and, at these meetings, I took the opportunity to set out my role as COSLA spokesperson. I was resolute in assuring him that I was representing all councils and that I would be regularly reporting back to Leadership Sounding Board and Leaders.
The Cabinet Secretary highlighted that the Government was under significant financial pressure to deliver its priorities set out in the Programme for Government and the manifesto. He also stressed that the ‘budget’ at UK level was a real issue in terms of timescale and decision making. We now know that the UK budget will be on 22nd November and that the Scottish budget will likely follow the same timescale as last year, so by our estimation is likely to be around either 13th or 14th December. The Cabinet Secretary has confirmed that it is his intention to announce the local government settlement on the same day which follows the same pattern as last year.
In discussing timescales, whilst not definitive, the Cabinet Secretary did also strongly indicate that it will be a 1 year deal
The meetings to date have been constructive and I have set out to him some key priorities areas for local government. One of the primary messages I want to convey in these discussions is the fact that recent spending review discussions have only focused on the ‘additional’ items or ‘commitments’ and not the core budget – so discussion takes place over a
few hundred million but not the £10bn which is the local government settlement. This focus needs to change as it is the core services that are under considerable pressure and we need to be honest about how we jointly manage this. I emphasized that underinvestment in these areas will be counterproductive to achieving the national priorities of inclusive growth and tackling inequalities.
I would also like to assure Convention that is it my intention to work closely with my political colleagues in COSLA and bring them into spending review discussions as appropriate. For instance, I will seek to work closely with Stephen on securing the appropriate funding for the expansion to early learning and childcare. Equally, there are a number of health and social care areas that feed into the spending review and I will be working closely with Peter on these.
Also firmly embedded in any financial settlement for local government is the question of “how do we fairly and appropriately reward our workforce in a way which maintains morale and productivity and at the same time is affordable and sustainable within council budgets”?
Recent pronouncements by the Scottish Government that the public sector pay cap is effectively over, will undoubtedly raise the aspirations of the Trade Unions as they seek a pay settlement at or above the current rate of inflation.
As yet, there is no clear indication from the Cabinet Secretary that the outcome of the Spending Review will allow for increases of this nature. However, he has committed to open dialogue in the run the up to any Government announcements on pay recognising the consequences this could have for local government pay settlements.
What I can say is, that as part of this year’s pay settlement, Convention will be aware that we agreed to undertake joint campaigns with the Unions in the run up to the spending review to promote the value of the local government workforce and that investment in the workforce also helps achieve the ambitions of inclusive growth and tackling inequalities.
Wearing my COSLA Employers hat for a moment, my priorities over the next 12 months therefore will be to manage the aspirations of the Trade Unions in our negotiations within the various Bargaining Groups and to pursue pay settlements which protect jobs and services, whilst fairly rewarding a valued and hardworking workforce, whilst all the time trying to maintain a climate of good industrial relations.
Looking a little further into the future, we have agreed to jointly work, initially with the SJC Trade Unions, on a future pay strategy which all sides can sign up to. This is an ambitious undertaking and, already in the preliminary work that has been done, we can see that pay cannot be taken in isolation. It will draw on issues such as workforce planning, demographics and service redesign, employee well-being and altering perceptions of the value of local government and the contribution our workforce makes to the safe and ordered running of society itself. There is much to be done and I anticipate reporting to COSLA Leaders several times in the months ahead on this important work.
Finally, in terms of the spending review I am pleased to report to Convention that the Cabinet Secretary has committed to a series of meetings up until the settlement announcement and over the next couple of weeks I also intend to meet with key leads in the Parliament. I know that the Cabinet Secretary is engaging in early discussions with all parties and I want to ensure the local government position is high on the agenda.
I would also like to assure Convention that these political discussions are fully supported by a senior officer group made up of representatives from SOLACE, Directors of Finance, the Improvement service and COSLA. The group is undertaking work to provide evidence to support our case and develop a full ‘infographics’ briefing for wider circulation to MSPs, conveying the positive contribution local government makes and particularly in areas of inclusive growth and tackling inequalities. This will also be supported by a wider media campaign.
Whilst intrinsically linked to the Spending Review, Local taxation is another key area within my remit and I have been promoting the need for greater fiscal empowerment in local government and specifically our desire for the power for a discretionary tax allowance.
In line with taxation, the final area I would like to mention is the Barclay Review. I know that the recommendation to remove the charitable status for ALEOs is something that is causing us all considerable concern. I have met with the Cabinet Secretary on this matter and relayed the wider social benefits that the ALEO provides. I feel he has understood the wider implications and we have agreed continued dialogue before any decisions or announcements are made on the matter.
All in all, as I said at the beginning, these are all very challenging areas but I intend, through my role as Spokesperson, to emphatically represent the interests of COSLA, local government and most importantly our communities.