COSLA President Councillor David O’Neill is put under the spotlight in the first of a series of interviews that get to grips with the Presidential team and Spokespersons at COSLA.
The President of COSLA is constantly under the scrutiny of others for his actions and the decisions he makes. But not much is known about the person behind the politician. The resident of Irvine who enjoys using local walks as a way to relax, had wanted to get into politics from a young age: “I always wanted to be a politician. I could tell you who was in the Cabinet instead of the top football players in any Scottish football team. My passion has always been politics as opposed to sport or anything else.”
After school, David O’Neill’s step into politics began in Cunningham District Council where he chaired different committees, including the Environmental Health and Economic Development Committee. The young Councillor moved to North Ayrshire Council in the mid 90’s where he chaired the Support Services Committee, before rising up the ranks to become North Ayrshire Council Leader. He remained there for three terms (1999- 2012) until last June when he landed one of the best jobs in Scottish politics, President of COSLA.
On becoming COSLA President, O’Neill decided that one of his first and most important tasks was to get out and meet the membership. In a hectic autumn tour he travelled with the rest of COSLA’s team on a listening tour round each of the Councils in Scotland to meet and greet the 32 constituent parts that make up the national organisation which he represents.
“As COSLA President, I made the decision to travel and visit the Councils so that we could hear what they had to say. We gained a better insight into some of the real challenges which local authorities are facing on a daily basis. This helped me to hear at first hand some of the live examples about how government decisions are affecting the different communities that make up Scotland’s diverse landscape.”
David O’Neill admits part of his job is trying to be flexible to ensure the decisions he makes are the right ones: “The operative word is local. Having 32 local authorities often means having to listen to 32 different opinions and getting the best possible settled position for a collective local government voice.”
Not only does COSLA deal with issues in relation to its Council membership, it also interacts directly with the Scottish and UK governments, COSLA’s job is to assess and react to issues that affect the Scottish people.
And as President, David is at the forefront of every issue. One key example is the UK welfare reforms, with David and his team preparing for the consequences of the coming changes.
As Councillor O’Neill aptly puts it:
“The impact on communities has not yet been tested in relation to welfare reforms.”
“As soon as things go pear-shaped, the first door that will get chapped is ours and we will have to deal with whatever is thrown at us.”
“Our relationship with the Scottish and UK Government is all about us being able to influence the way legislation is being drawn up and how the funding for the services that affect our communities is allocated.”
Since O’Neill joined COSLA’s ranks, he’s dealt with a number of big and diverse issues, including trying to get broadband access throughout Scotland, dealing with the pay award for the local government workforce and more recently, a project to introduce plug points for electric cars across the country.
“The range and scale of the issues shows that I will never weary in my current post,” said David.
Councillor O’Neill said that if he could achieve just one thing during his presidency of COSLA, it would be to see people recognise the real value of the services Councils deliver to the communities they represent and serve: “A lot of people out there don’t appreciate the value of these services. I would really like to see that importance recognised.”
Attentive to detail and very good at reading the situation, David knows when to listen and when to make a decision. He is also willing to accept smart ideas irrespective of where they come from. Following his election as COSLA President last June, Labour’s local government spokeswoman Sarah Boyack said she thought O’Neill would lead COSLA in a ”consensual, sensible and pragmatic way, putting the needs of local government first.”
Since his election, David seems to have lived up to such expectations, and looks set to forge ahead as a successful and confident President of COSLA.