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  • Writer's pictureandrew ferguson

The Verity House Agreement - a major leap forward - or back to the future?

The Treaty of Versailles. The Lancaster House Agreement. The Verity House Agreement. Attaching the building where something momentous was signed has a long tradition, one brought right up to date recently with the accord signed between the Scottish Government’s First Minister and COSLA at the latter’s headquarters.

It’s easy to be cynical about such things. I’m quite sure neither Mr Yousaf, his hard-pressed advisers, nor the assorted COSLA bigwigs were seeking to equate their coming together over Scottish governmental matters with either the treaty ending the First World War or the agreement that effectively ceased hostilities in Zimbabwe in 1979.

Nor should one be so unkind as to compare the French palace where the Treaty was signed, and the London mansion on the Mall that gives its name to the 1979 Agreement, to the rather more hummel-doddie building a stone’s throw from Edinburgh’s Haymarket railway station.

On the other hand, the utilitarian facings of Verity House perhaps serve as a metaphor for an agreement that, given the recent history of its subject matter, fails to give the same impression of permanence that the more illustrious edifices in Paris and London do.

For many, the relationship between local government and the Scottish administration at Holyrood – regardless of political colour – has always been a series of questions looking for an answer. Local government reorganisation in 1994-6, which produced 32 unitary authorities of varying size and geographical logic from the previous system of regional and district councils, happened just before the creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1998, which followed an overwhelmingly positive referendum result (yes, these things can happen!) in 1997.

Whatever might be set down in the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act 1994 and the Scotland Act 1998, there is a sense that who should do what in terms of the governance of, and provision of public sector services to, our nation of 5 million or so souls, is a source of constant debate. Verity House is the latest of a number of attempts by Holyrood and COSLA, Scottish local government’s representative body, to distil that debate into a set of principles.

So what does the Agreement say? Firstly, it says that the Scottish Government and COSLA will take a ‘more collaborative approach to delivering our shared priorities for the people of Scotland.’ So far, so laudable – but as with all such statements, it does rather beg the question what on earth the two organisations were doing previously that was not ‘collaborative,’ and why.

The Agreement sets out three priorities with which few would disagree, namely:

  • Tackling poverty, particularly child poverty;

  • Transforming the economy through a just transition to deliver net zero [carbon emissions];

  • Delivering sustainable person-centred public services.

Although the Agreement admits itself to be a ‘high level statement of intent,’ there follows a series of reasonably specific actions to be achieved by three dates in September and October 2023, and August 2024. Many of these concern themselves with joint working on budgetary matters, and specifically looking at what monies flowing from Holyrood can be ‘baselined’ into either the General Revenue or Capital grants that local authorities receive.

There then follows a 28-point set of agreed principles, many of which again say what one would expect any accord between different levels of government would say: collaboration, co-operation, mutual respect and trust, and so on. The Scottish Government undertakes to enshrine the rights of local government in law – something that was nearly accomplished by Andy Wightman’s proposed incorporation of the European Charter of Local Self-Government, currently in s.35 development hell following a Supreme Court ruling.

However, it is perhaps most useful to draw out what the Agreement calls both parties’ ‘default positions,’ namely:

  • Local government funding will not normally be ring-fenced;

  • In general, responsibilities will be exercised in accordance with the maxim ‘local by default, national by agreement.’

It is also perhaps worth noting that the Scottish Government has undertaken to conclude the Local Governance Review in the lifetime of the current Parliament.

It is far too easy to be cynical about the first of these ‘default positions.’ In 2007, the incoming SNP administration undertook to do away with ring-fenced funding to local government, whereby specific pots of money were allocated out to councils with strings attached telling them exactly what the Holyrood administration wanted those pots spent on. Instead, councils were to be given a single pot of money, with the way in which it would be used regulated by what was called a Single Outcome Agreement. So why the need to restate the same thing?

The intervening sixteen or so years have seen a gradual rowing back of the singularity of that pot of money. Whilst the principle of the thing sounds fine, the reality is that the Scottish Government – politicians and civil servants alike – have any number of reasons to want to implement a national policy at local level using the agency of local government. The easiest way to do that? A specific grant, with conditions on how the money is to be used.

Similarly, the principle of ‘local by default, national by agreement,’ sounds good to most people. Wouldn’t we all like to be able to go along our street and knock on our local mayor’s door to get the roads fixed, as we’re so often told is the norm in most mainland European countries? However, we don’t live in the land of Humpty Dumpty, to quote a recent judicial phrase, nor indeed in Camberwick Green.

The years since 2007 have seen some functions taken in the opposite direction: both police and fire have been reorganised to a national level; the creation of a National Care Service is just the latest of controversial proposals of that nature. Why does it happen? Critics would say it’s all about money: after all, it’s cheaper to pay a single Chief Constable than eight of them. Proponents would argue it’s a way of forcing best practice and sharing of services across the nation, both things which the fragmented nature of local or even regional bodies makes difficult, if not impossible.

Still. National ‘by agreement’? With whom? COSLA agreeing to functions being taken from local government would be pretty much in line with turkeys voting for Christmas. Perhaps ‘the people,’ so often mentioned as the ones with the ultimate power in such documents as Verity House. Should such detail be in party political manifestos to be deemed to be ‘by agreement’? Please spare us yet more referenda on such matters!

Perhaps all these issues, and more, will be resolved by the Local Governance Review, launched (or rather, relaunched) in 2019 ‘to ensure Scotland’s diverse communities and different places have greater control and influence over decisions that affect them most.’ An earlier, associated consultation known as ‘Democracy Matters,’ ran in the autumn of 2018. Much of the talk at that time was around increased localism, a concept which has been kicking around for a couple of decades at least now under that name, and which led to the English Localism Act of 2011.

At its core, localism proposes the same thing as Verity House: local by default, national by agreement. What’s so wrong with that? Wouldn’t it be great to kick the local mayor out of bed in the morning?

In principle, of course it would. Local communities have their own way of looking at things – just ask the citizens of St Andrews, or Kelty, or Wick. Even in our larger cities there would be an argument that only the inhabitants of Morningside or Wester Hailes, to give two Edinburgh examples, can understand the unique challenges their barrio faces. On the other hand, the experience of 32 local authorities since 1996 – varying in size between Glasgow on the one hand and Clackmannanshire (pop.: 50,000) on the other – suggests that small is not always beautiful, or even efficient.

The proof? The emergence, since 1996, of a number of regional bodies to address issues of governance at that level: Regional Transport Partnerships; City Region Planning (now abolished, but being effectively replaced by Regional Spatial Strategies); regional joint working between, for example, the three Ayrshire authorities; and, above all, the rise of the city region in the various City Deals, blessed with money and resources by both Westminster and Holyrood administrations.

I said at the start of this piece that it’s easy to be cynical. It certainly is for someone who has worked in, or for, local and regional governmental bodies for thirty-four years. This is not meant to be a completely negative piece, however. The Verity House Agreement may just be the latest in a long series of accords and covenants and concordats between different levels of government in this country – and who knows, elsewhere as well. That doesn’t mean that they’re not necessary at the time. All relationships need maintenance: they also sometimes need a reset.

I hope that the Scottish Government do conclude the Local Governance Review. I hope that they emerge with a firm set of proposals from it on how we are to be governed and have our public services delivered. In doing so, I also hope that they ask themselves the following questions:

  • What does the data show, in this country and elsewhere? How has the Localism Act played out in England, where, as here, we see the rise of the city regions, with mayor-led metropolitan authorities in the north of England setting out one, but not the only model we could follow?

  • What does history teach us? What did we gain, and what did we lose, when the regions and districts were abolished in 1996, bearing in mind one of the reasons for that reform was Westminster’s desire to curb the powers of, in particular, Lothian and Strathclyde’s political leaders? Going further back, why did the Wheatley Commission recommend the abolition of burgh and county councils?

  • Drawing on the lessons we learn from both the data and an unflinching look at history, what is the best fit for the delivery of public services – all public services – in our modern age? What are the barriers to co-operation that can be dismantled by different governance structures? Instead of sticking to a dogma of ‘local is always best,’ what can be devolved down and what should be taken upwards?

  • Last but by no means least, what is the fully costed financial model for the preferred solution? Will it be efficient and effective? Irrespective of whether the mayor lives down the street or fifty miles away, will there be money to fix the potholes?

Governance is a much overused word in public life these days. But a review of governance, properly carried out and without being hostage to any one interest, can make a difference to how the Scottish people, those darlings of governmental pronouncements, can be served.

This cynic, at least, would be happy to be proven wrong.

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