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Agenda: Unity is essential in Cosla to face up to the challenging times ahead

I was impressed by the force of the challenge being posed to Cosla ("Cosla is not a player so it is little wonder history is passing it by", Herald Agenda, February 28).

Who was in charge of this shockingly failing organisation? Then I remembered: that would be me, Councillor Gordon Matheson and 31 other council leaders across Scotland who provide the governance of Cosla on behalf of their councils. Mr Matheson's political group is the largest on Cosla and is chaired by … Mr Matheson. Cosla is the 32 councils in Scotland working together at political level. All of us are participants. None has been a spectator.

Has Cosla done that badly? Its primary relationship is with national government and times are challenging. There is a majority government at Holyrood; the biggest public spending squeeze in 50 years; and a centralising agenda in national politics. In addition, national circumstances are not conducive to successful lobbying and no political group in Cosla has the majority. This could lead to a lack of clarity and direction.

However, this has been a productive period for Cosla. We have built on the working relationship with Scottish Government and achieved consensus on improving outcomes for communities and protecting services.

Cosla has significant influence on developing national policy. Comparisons with local government across the UK show that a partnership with the Scottish Government is not a weakness but a strategy for success. Since 2010, English councils have endured budget cuts of 14%. Scotland has experienced cuts of 3%.

Our share of the Scottish budget has remained constant at 34.5%. English local government's share has been cut by 3%. Given the pressures on the Scottish budget, this is an achievement. Scottish local government is part of the national policy-making process and a clear influence on national policy. English councils are simply consultees. Most of Cosla's work maximises that opportunity. Detailed work in analysis, policy development and so on is critically important to improving services and protecting local democratic accountability.

Any losses have been small. We have prevented national parties pressing ahead with the removal of care and criminal justice services from local control. Equally, major parts of the English local government budget remains ring-fenced whereas in Scotland less than 2% is. Welsh councils are being restructured against their will and in Northern Ireland they struggle to achieve control of local services at all.

Any objective view shows an effective Cosla defending local government and promoting local community interest. Success is achieved by Cosla's political leadership and staff with an outstanding degree of discipline. We have avoided lashing out, posturing and taking the cheap shot to protect successful outcomes. Cosla's difficulty is that discipline, hard work, rigour and policy engagement are less eye-catching than a fight. But they are more effective and are what is required if our objective is better outcomes for local people. The key question is: will we continue to show the discipline and consensus building necessary to take the agenda forward? I hope that, irrespective of anyone's short-term views of Cosla, we can work together to ensure that the opportunity to assert local democracy in the context of the broader discussion on the referendum is not lost.

If we can unite, we can have an impact. Given the referendum and the projected financial pressures of the next 10 years, now is not the time to lose discipline and focus. There are those in Scotland who do not believe there is any connection between local democracy, local government and successful community outcomes. A disunited Cosla is an invitation for that view to prevail.

We value all councils, including Glasgow, for their political contribution to Cosla. Losing Glasgow would be serious. My plea is that, as Cosla's challenges are internal, they should be addressed by people being in rather than out.

Contextual targeting label: 
Local government

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