Devolution to Scottish councils ‘more urgent than Holyrood powers’

12 Mar 15

Scotland’s continuing obsession with wresting powers from Westminster is in danger of hijacking the ‘more pressing’ need to devolve power down from Holyrood to local authority level, the leader of the Scottish municipal umbrella body Cosla has warned.

David O’Neill, president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, issued the warning in an address to Cosla’s annual conference, the first since four authorities – including Scotland’s biggest, Glasgow – decided to quit the group from next month.

Addressing the conference theme of inequalities, O’Neill told delegates: ‘For inequalities to be addressed, local government in Scotland needs to be freed up, more empowered and better resourced to be able to do the job that needs to be done.’

Last year’s Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy, which O’Neill chaired, had hoped that the referendum debate would bring more devolution within Scotland, as well as to the Holyrood parliament.

O’Neill said that this debate goes on in light of the recommendation of the Smith Commission to devolve more tax and benefit powers.

However, he warned that there was a real chance that the question of devolution within Scotland will ‘simply be forgotten’ amid the reforms.

‘Here and now, for our most deprived communities, what happens within Scotland and how we are organised to deliver better outcomes is a much more pressing issue,’ he stated.

‘Talks on devolution within Scotland seem to have stalled and, if anything, a more centralised approach within Scotland seems to be developing.’

Turning to the schism within Cosla itself, caused by dissatisfaction over the outcome and dispersal of funding settlements negotiated with Scottish ministers, O’Neill admitted that the year has been ‘challenging’, but added: ‘At worst, we might have expected Cosla to end the year with eight of its members indicating they won’t be with us from April 1. In the event it is only half that number.

‘We ended the year in less difficulty than we might have but nevertheless, in terms of membership, in an unhappy and unsatisfactory place. Conference can be assured that I will work tirelessly over the next period to create the circumstances to allow every council back into Cosla membership.

‘Our collective voice is precious. I am convinced that there are enough councils and councillors who support that collective voice and from this position, we will become stronger not weaker,’ he adds. ‘We must jealously guard our ability and obligation to work together with one voice on behalf of communities to better their outcomes and improve people’s lives.’

Speakers at the two-day gathering in Crieff include First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy, Scottish local government ministers Alex Neill and Marco Biagi, and the UK government Scotland Secretary Alistair Carmichael.

  • Keith Aitken
    Keith Aitken

    covers Scottish affairs for Public Finance from Edinburgh. He was formerly economics editor and chief leader writer on The Scotsman and now has a busy freelance career as a writer, broadcaster and event chair.

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