Scotland’s local elections – what to look out for

By Professor Kenneth Gibb, Director of Policy Scotland

The upcoming Scottish local government elections are likely to lead to change, not just in the political make-up of councils but also because so many experienced Councillors in leadership positions are standing down. Budgets will be tighter than ever before, and a new generation of elected councillors are going to face difficult choices.

And while it seems likely that we will see a continued hollowing-out of town hall autonomy – both through a long-term centralising tendency and the ‘double-devolution’ approach of handing powers direct to community level – councils will still play a crucial role in service delivery in key areas like education and social care.

And with each of Scotland’s political parties currently in the process of drawing up their manifestos there are six key issues voters across the country should be looking out for.

Inevitably, funding and budgets will loom large. Despite the budget agreement and the welcome additional £160m for 2017-18, local government faces a challenging set of financial circumstances for the foreseeable future.

Highly visible council tax bills will be arriving on voters’ doormats with significant upper band increases and up to 3% increases in band D properties. The messages that parties send out about tax and spending manifesto priorities, and about who is to blame for these choices will be a key issue as we get closer to May 4th.

Second, the challenges faced by NHS boards and councils in implementing statutory health and care integration are likely to remain a key issue during the campaign, particularly in light of the often huge challenges given the complexity of joint governance and working arrangements, pressures on services and uncertainty over whether planned savings will be realised.

Integration is a big budget, time-consuming and resource-intensive challenge for councils whoever is in power – so voters should be looking carefully at what manifestos say about these matters.

Third, the Government has made closing the educational attainment gap their domestic priority, an issue that was brought into sharp relief by recent negative international comparisons and domestic performance evidence from the Sutton Trust. Schooling is delivered by councils but Holyrood Ministers are responsible for outcomes.

In the autumn, there was controversy whether the extra funds from lifting the council tax freeze should be ring-fenced for attainment gap policy or remain local and discretionary. Ultimately, the extra resources remained with councils and new funds to challenge the attainment gap were found nationally. As Ministers stress, closing the gap should not just be about schooling but delivering wider strategies to reduce child poverty and inequality, as well as benefiting from well-established early years programmes. Because the emphasis has been placed on attainment, the focus is on the underperformance of schools. For the election, the questions then become: who shoulders the blame for the decline in educational outcomes , what reforms need to be introduced and how can central and local government best work together to solve the problem?

The new city-region deals also generate tensions – and in Scotland’s case, they additionally involve three tiers of government. The Deals provide new money but also risks. City deals are a vital chance to invest in critical infrastructure and boost local economies, requiring councils to work together in partnership. The impact of any changes in administration and associated political tensions after May will be a challenge – and a challenge which parties have a duty to spell out how they intend to meet in their manifestos.

With reforming legislation on its way, the planning system is inherently local and a source of real influence for councillors. But it is also seen by some to be a barrier to housing supply delivery requiring national government reforms to rectify. The Scottish Government’s goal to build 50,000 affordable homes is a massive challenge – locally as well as nationally – and how local government best contributes to meeting Scotlnad’s housing needs must be a key election issue.

Finally, while the Scottish Government prioritises social justice and inequality-reduction, there have been significant local responses, too. Alongside the work of the Poverty Truth Commission in which Councils were prominent, some local authorities are sponsoring their own fairness commissions or exploring localised universal citizens’ income models. The role councils intend to play in the fight against inequality going forward is another key issue to look out for in manifestos.

Whatever the results, Chief executives and council leaders will sit down to discuss their priorities in May. If they are able to look beyond annual budgets and immediate service delivery challenges, many will consider that working constructively with the Scottish Government on these questions, should be their top priority – and the only way to deliver the results their voters expect of them.

Originally published in the Scotsman