Everyday folk see COSLA, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, as a well connected Labour fiefdom consistently subverting the attempts of the Scottish government to offer appropriate reasonable protection from closure to rural schools and their communities.
With 16 out of the 32 Scottish local authorities being Labour led, the empirical fact is that COSLA is governed and directed by Labour.
However, at the moment there is a determined movement by Labour councils to bin their COSLA membership; and set up a separate lean machine of their own to represent their collective interests.
This seems a conundrum and in many ways it is.
The conflicted situations
The bigger current context is a power struggle between the current Scottish Government, which wants to centralise power and reduce the responsibilities and authority of local councils; and the councils, represented by COSLA, fighting for the retention of localisation, which is their territory.
The current SNP Government has an outright majority in the Scottish Parliament.
The twin forks of the government’s wish to centralise power and its political ability to do as it likes has put COSLA in an unaccustomed position of weakness. While being as obstructive as possible, it is having to make concessions to government in order not to provoke action to pull powers back to the centre.
This has led to internal tensions in COSLA.
One group of members – the non-Labour led councils, feel that their interests are not being adequately represented and that COSLA manipulates the revenue grant allocation to favour Labour-led councils and particuarly those from whom COSLA’s own major players come.
There is evidence for the accuracy of this perception. In 2010 Argyll and Bute [never a major player in anything except the joke stakes], whose Leader then and again now, Councillor Dick Walsh, asleep on watch at the time, was shystered out of no less than £11 million by COSLA – to the advantage of some of the big Labour councils like Aberdeen.
COSLA’s current position of weakness in respect of government has meant that it has had to be more circumspect in its treatment of councils it would otherwise have seen as feeding stations for its favoured core.
The second group of councils, the Labour-led ones, are now feeling the breeze in the reduction of the comfort cushion they have traditionally enjoyed at the expense of of their non-Labour-led peers. Their view is that their interests are now not being properly represented by what has always been their organisation and they are mightily peeved. They see COSLA being continually rolled over by the SNP government.
The current situation is that the councils led by parties and groups other than Labour are attempting to prevent a continuing Labour stranglehold on the organisation.
Scottish Borders Council – which has no Labour members, requested a Review of COSLA’s constitution, with the proposal to remove decision taking authority from the monthly Leaders’ and CEOs meeting and transfer it to the delegate led quarterly Convention.
This is ongoing and is to report in the summer of 2014.
About two weeks ago, Dumfries and Galloway Council, where the Conservatives have one more seat than Labour but who have formed a coalition administration with the SNP, made a move that was interesting but little more than equivocal. It was nevertheless, a form of stalking horse.
It gave the required 12 months notice to COSLA that it would be cancelling its membership for 2015-16. It will pay its £91,000+ fee this year but will stop it next year.
At the same time the council reserved the right to change its mind between now and next year – depending on whether it saw the result of the Review as constructive from its own perspective..
Last Thursday, Aberdeen City Council followed suit – less equivocally but with as much conceptual confusion as to the underlying reason for its actions. On the one hand it specifically cited school closures as a matter where COSLA has lain prone before the Scottish Government [a perspective that does not stand up to scrutiny’. It then said that if it negotiated separately with government on its own behalf, it would ‘get its fair share’.
Aberdeen too cited the COSLA Constitution Review as a matter of serious concern – although its anxieties as to the outcome would be very different from those of Dumfries and Galloway.
The Review cannot satisfy both factions, hence the current manoeuvres.
Upon Aberdeen’s notified defection, a COSLA spokesperson predicted, with surprising insouciance, that other councils would be following Aberdeen out of the door.
A central belt cluster of powerful councils – Glasgow, Labour-led and the biggest local authority on Scotland, Renfrewshire, South Lanarkshire and Inverclyde is indeed said to be set to pull out of COSLA; with Glasgow already apparently looking at how a lean alternative to COSLA might be set up to represent the interests of the breakaway Labour councils.
This would see a second organised local authority body – with a single political focus which would be forceful in the first instance but would be open to change should any of its member local authorities see a different political make up at future council elections.
It would be chaotic if, in such circumstances, we were to see a series of splinter groups in increasing pursuit of a political purism that is not achievable outside a monolithic state.
It would also be deeply ironic if the non-Labour led councils inherited a traditionally Labour dominated COSLA from whom Labour-led council had defected.
A smaller number of local authorities could not afford COSLA, of course; and it is thought that the defections – on a 12 month timeline – are a tactical threat to force COSLA to recognise the superiority of some of its member councils above others and to stand up to government. This latter aim fails to understand the reality of COSLA’s current position of political weakness.
COSLA and costs
COSLA is the trade union for local authorities, representing them collectively in negotiations with government on their annual revenue and grant and on relevant policy matters; and with the unions on pay and conditions of employees.
Its major decision taking body is a monthly meeting attended by the Leaders and Chief Executives of each council, with the CEOs the more stable factor of the two, reliably informed on local authority and civil service procedures and guiding their political leaders of the moment.
COSLA also has six ‘Executive’ committees, each focused on areas of policy; and it holds quarterly conventions attended by delegates from the 32 local authorities.
Each local authority pays an annual fee to COSLA – an expensive outfit with a permanent staff establishment and an HQ in central Edinburgh. The annual fee varies according to the size of the council’s financial responsibilities and therefore its annual revenue grant from government – but for example, Dumfries and Galloway will pay £91,638.00 + VAT to COSLA for the 2014-15 session.
A council then has indirect costs of COSLA membership to pay – the travel, subsistence and, in the case of the far flung councils, overnight accommodation for their representatives to travel to the monthly meetings, the executive committee meetings and the quarterly conventions; and the time of the officers and elected members concerned.
Then there is a second body, the so-called ‘Improvement Service’, which council also pay to join. This is a Siamese twin of COSLA and joint host of the quarterly conventions. It provides information and training services. spawned by COSLA in association with the amusingly called SOLACE, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives.
The Improvement Service is a child born of COSLA and its associated and amusingly titled SOLACE, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives; and is a company limited by guarantee. It is funded by ‘top slicing’ from the total of the annual revenue support grant from government; meaning even more public money siphoned off from the delivery of local services.
In every sense, COSLA and the Improvement Service are together a publicly funded political power base – traditionally for Labour – and supporting or subverting the government of the day, according to its political colour.
They also, through membership fees, hoover away a substantial amount of a local authority’s annual revenue grant for largely duplicatory services in advice and policy making.
Policy really does have to be the territory of the government of the day, under challenge from opposing views in the elected parliament.
COSLA is a dinosaur and an expensive one. It’s autopilot social perspectives and trench warfare modus operandi give the localisation of power a bad name as councils are seen to be driven by an external centralised body anyway – – COSLA.
As an organisation, it is probably now irrecoverable, with its internal schisms leading to its some of its own staff happily predicting its demise.
People support either centralisation or localisation of power according to whether they see the government of the day or the local authority of the day as their better friend.
Centralisation is attractive in supposed efficiencies but in practice is as wasteful as anything else – and, inevitably, underinformed.
Centralisation is, however always dangerous in creating an absolute power that is wont increasingly to manage affairs in its own interests and then has the power to control every aspect of life, work and planning.
The optimum solution would be :
- to depoliticise local government absolutely and to penalise seriously any breach of this;
- to bin COSLA;
- to establish a new mobile, flexible and inexpensive representative mechanism whose function would be to do no more than to negotiate on behalf of all 32 councils with government on revenue support; and with the unions on pay and working conditions;
- to leave each local authority free to shape local services to suit the need and character of its area.
Local authorities have their own electorates calling them to account – as do governments.
Organisations like COSLA, which are unelected but which exercise substantial and enduring power, are not defensible in a democracy and are simply not affordable today.
What the current ruckus does is to provide the ideal foundation for some long overdue new thinking on how local government works and what it is for.