Reform Scotland

Empowering the Engine Room of Scotland’s Economy – Susan Aitken

THE time for a fresh appraisal of the purpose, status and needs of Scottish local government is definitely now, but reform and renewal don’t have to mean wholesale reorganisation.

Communities face unprecedented pressures, from the impact of the cost-of-living crisis and rampant inflation on households and public services to 13 years of austerity. The global pandemic has exacerbated structural changes within town and city centres, creating growing numbers of vacant sites and properties. And with increasingly urgent climate action required, major shifts in policy and significant investment are necessary to meet our Net Zero targets and secure the opportunities from the emerging Green Economy.

The solutions to these and so many other challenges are local, requiring councils to be not only adequately resourced but empowered with the necessary levers, as well as cultures and approaches to adapt and change, and new relationships forged and nurtured. None of that requires lines on local maps to be redrawn.

Few would deny the gerrymandered local government reorganisation of the mid-1990s was intended to shaft authorities like Glasgow, denying us the residential tax base of affluent suburbs even while those suburbs continued to make use of services paid for by Glaswegians. But redrawing council boundaries now would not only be costly, time-consuming and distracting, it wouldn’t do anything to rebalance power, particularly economic power. That, even more than where households pay their local taxes, is much more relevant to Glasgow’s future success.

Two themes too often dominate the public narrative around local government: the clamour in some quarters for an additional tier to replicate models south of the border, and a view that only more money can deliver solutions. Both display a collective failure of imagination about the real potential for Scottish local government to deliver transformation.

Re-energising public faith in local government is secured by citizens seeing outcomes delivered, lives improved, and communities transformed, not by new figureheads. And while arguments with the Scottish Government about the size of the pot distributed to local government (and how it is redistributed) are part of the terrain, the solutions to our immediate and long-term needs go beyond resource. More money can’t just mean doing more of the same.

Addressing challenge and delivering change requires power to be better distributed, giving councils the ability to respond more quickly, effectively, and in the right places.

As regards our town and city centres for example, local authorities are being expected to deal with the consequences of the inexorable rise in online retail and the decline in daytime footfall since the pandemic. It falls to us to shape new purposes for places.

I recently listened to esteemed architect and cities champion Lord Norman Foster discussing the potential that repurposing buildings holds for creating the urban centres of the future. This is an agenda Glasgow is already pursuing, transforming redundant buildings into new homes and locations for new industries.

But our ambitions to redefine and renew urban centres face barriers only the Scottish and UK Governments can remove. We don’t have the powers to issue compulsory sales orders and force absentee landlords to sell up, or to relax the constraints on converting historic buildings, or to remove the VAT that disincentivises existing building conversions. Empowering local government with the right tools will enable much faster transformation and recovery of post-pandemic places.

Local government reform also requires a renewed emphasis on the prevention of poor health and poverty, rather than the perpetual firefight against the symptoms.

Over a decade ago, the late Campbell Christie proposed better public sector collaboration and community leadership to address the root causes of social and economic exclusion. But while the deepening crises wrought by the austerity era have constantly hampered efforts to translate the Christie Commission principles into practice, so too has the political kickback whenever bold decisions are taken to redirect resources towards prevention. 

The services provided by local government need to be better understood as complementing national policies and agendas and not as subsidiary to them. The Scottish Child payment, for example, has been a transformative intervention by the SNP government, helping lift people out of often extreme poverty.

But the causes and impacts of poverty are complex and not easily removed by material interventions alone. The work of supporting people towards independence and self-actualisation is multi-layered – and it is local. Investing people who have experienced the disempowerment of poverty with the confidence to make the difference in their own lives is about skills, training and employability support towards fair, decently paid and sustainable jobs. It is about meeting people where they are, in their own places – and it is local public and third sector services who are already in those places.

Scotland is, of course, for its relatively small size, a diverse nation with very disparate needs and opportunities, not all of which relate to geography.

Glasgow, for example, has more social challenges of a greater scale than any other local authority, something I have argued requires funding to be weighted accordingly. And the forthcoming and increasingly urgently required reform of local taxation should also have place-based fairness as a key principle.

But we’re also the engine room of Scotland’s economy, the centre of the only true metropolis north of Manchester and the heart of a region with a growing, diverse and innovative economy. And we’re the driver of potentially the most transformative development in Scottish local government in generations.

Glasgow’s City Deal was the initial catalyst for the strong collaborative governance nurtured between councils and the academic and private sectors in recent years. That sense of partnership on shared challenges and opportunities has forged a genuine sense of ‘the City Region’. The transformational potential now goes far beyond delivery of the initial City Deal monies themselves, which is now only one of many strands of work overseen by a Regional Cabinet of democratically elected local leaders.

Guided by a Regional Economic Strategy that involved government and national agencies in its development and implementation, we’re collectively addressing productivity, climate, inclusion, and the wellbeing of nearly two million citizens. And we have a clear focus on confronting the long-standing ‘Grand Challenges’ holding the region and our people back.

The scope for further evolution of the City Region is huge, from attracting the major investments needed for climate adaptation, to the transformational potential of the Clyde Metro project.

These ambitions have taken a considerable step forward with the recent Programme for Government including a commitment to progress Glasgow’s ambition for formal metropolitan status and further empower Scotland’s Regional Economic Partnerships (REPs). The leadership of the £40m Clyde Mission has also migrated from the Scottish Government to the City Region, putting in the hands of locally elected leaders this project to transform the river corridor. And in the past year, the City Region has attracted over £110million to advance and attract cutting-edge industries.

In my time as city leader I’ve had the task of repositioning Glasgow not as a drag on the rest of Scotland as is often portrayed, but as a global city with a growing, vibrant and diverse economy, setting standards for inclusive and sustainable approaches to growth and attracting increasing international attention. In the annual Resonance World’s Best Cities index of the 100 top urban destinations for investment, published this month, Glasgow jumped from last year’s ranking of 98 to number 61, the highest UK city after London, the authors noting that “a pursuit of affordable opportunity keeps Glasgow real, even as its reputation soars”.

If Scotland is to maximise the benefit of that soaring reputation – and the investment and jobs it brings – the Glasgow Metro Region needs to be provisioned with the right economic infrastructure and powers to both continue our focus on transformation and to take what should have been our natural place over the past 50 years as the productive engine room of Scotland’s economy.

And where Glasgow leads, other areas can follow, in authoring their own empowered REPs. Economic, environmental and social transformation happens in places, and Scotland’s regions provide the closeness to place, the necessary scale and – within their constituent local authorities – the experience of delivery, to ensure fleet-footed, responsive and impactful interventions. A genuine regionalisation is necessary if we are to position ourselves alongside the most equitable, inclusive and productive of Europe’s small independent nations, while we make our plans to become one of them.

Scotland since devolution has often been a story of centralisation, right back to 1999 when the first administration dominated by former senior councillors fundamentally changed the relationship with local government. Later, the need to explore more effective use of resources, amid a squeeze in public finances, fuelled that further. But our Parliament and policy agendas have matured over 24 years. Securing outcomes, building trust and winning support for what Scotland can achieve now requires a move in the opposite direction – to respond at pace to the huge challenges and opportunities we face, to complement and enhance the national policies already making a difference to the lives of millions in Scotland, and to recognise that transformation of people’s lives and life chances is best achieved where they are, in their own places, locally.

Susan Aitken in an SNP councillor and leader of Glasgow City Council

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