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Agenda: Cosla is not a player so it is little wonder history is passing it by

There's now no convincing answer to the question:

what's the point of Cosla? The most recent controversies in the organisation about budgets and standing orders have led a number of councils to quit.

They have also brought more fundamental tensions to a head, highlighting the divisions among its membership and the disdain with which local government is held by the Scottish Government.

Finance Secretary John Swinney's unprecedented decision to present two sets of council budgets for 2015/16 with different winners and losers isn't thought-through politics.

But it is a transparent attempt to sow divisions between councils. Although it might stagger, zombie-like, for a period, Cosla will be finished the moment the two sets of figures are put on the agenda of one of its meetings. It will certainly be the last vote Glasgow casts. Recent developments in Scottish politics haven't helped Cosla, most notably the attitude of SNP councillors who consistently refuse to take any decision against the Scottish Government line.

This is a new and insidious development in Scottish democracy. When Labour were in power in Holyrood, Labour councillors would regularly and vociferously disagree with ministers. This no doubt was irritating for the Government but it's a healthy and necessary part of the checks and balances in the democratic process. This doesn't happen where the SNP are concerned.

History is also passing Cosla by as creative developments across local government result in increased diversification. The potential City Deal for Glasgow city-region and the assertion of Our Islands Our Future are healthy examples.

While politely supporting these initiatives from the sidelines, Cosla isn't a player. Instead it's stuck in a different age with a curious and anachronistic purpose: to seek compromise among councils in the interests of a stultifying and artificial unity. I can understand that change can be scary and some people in local government can't yet imagine life without Cosla, but the reality is that we can develop other models of co-operation across local government where that's required.

Some councils may choose to organise on a regional or party-political basis, for example, or get together as a grouping of rural councils or city regions or islands that share a similar profile. Let's embrace change and difference. This will be less convenient for the Scottish Government, but at least our councils will authentically represent their diverse communities.

It's also perfectly possible for local government to come together for national collective bargaining, for example, without the need for a separate organisation with its own substantial office and bureaucracy.

But what has put an intolerable burden on Cosla is the pressure on public finances. If local government had received the same percentage share of the Scottish Government budget in 2014/15 as in 2010/11, there would be an additional £621 million in our financial settlement this year. This is a decision made in Scotland. And if Glasgow had received the same percentage share of the available local government budget in 2013-15 as when the SNP first came to power we would have an extra £153m in our budget. This is also a decision made in Scotland.

So, not only has the overall size of the local government cake been disproportionately cut by Holyrood, the formula for allocating this funding has been discredited.

Meanwhile, Cosla is used by the Scottish Government as a human shield. Ministers divert criticism about cuts and claim they are merely implementing the funding formula agreed by Cosla. And councils end up squabbling among themselves over the scraps.

As a consequence, the question in recent months has changed from "why should my council leave Cosla?" to "why would it stay in?"

Those councils that initially remain will be in an organisation which has lost membership and legitimacy and will be financially distressed. How can they justify to their council tax payers the fees for remaining in such a body?

Contextual targeting label: 
Local government

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