A local champion: Gail Macgregor

A local champion: Gail Macgregor

By: Kerry Lorimer (published in Public Finance magazine)

 

Kerry Lorimer meets Gail Macgregor, resources spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, who has proved to be a doughty champion for local democracy and fiscal empowerment.

As resources spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, she has delivered with passion the case for extra council funding while quietly revolutionising the historically tetchy relationship between central and local government north of the border.

The Conservative councillor from Scotland’s rural south west, whose Twitter tag is Tenacious Tory, has formed a constructively assertive relationship with Scottish Government finance secretary Derek Mackay

Mackay’s last finance settlement included the right to levy new taxes on tourism and workplace parking, but that hasn’t diverted Macgregor from her mission to secure a sustainable funding base for councils.

“Local government has seen a serious reduction in its overall settlement for a 10- or 11-year period now,” she tells PF at COSLA’s Edinburgh headquarters.

"Ultimately, it will come down to the steel of politicians in parliament to make very difficult political decisions".

On the Scottish Government pledge to replace council tax.

“In the earlier days, savings were fairly easily achieved through streamlining services and amalgamations. But as we’ve gone further down the line, an awful lot of what we used to do has now been virtually stripped out.

“Local government no longer has absolute autonomy on what it’s expected to deliver on, and we’re seeing more and more policies driven by central government that local government has to deliver.”

It’s a source of frustration to Macgregor that in a period of intense pressure on public services, in which health enjoys protected status, the local government settlement appears to be whatever sum is left over at the end of the highly competitive budget process – plus any windfall that can be found “down the back of a sofa” in the course of last-minute negotiations between the minority SNP administration and the Greens.

That’s despite, she says, councils being solely responsible for 64% of the outcomes in the Scottish Government’s overarching national performance framework.

“At what point do we say ‘If we don’t get a fair settlement, which parts of the national performance framework would you like us to stop delivering on?’” she asks.

Especially galling for councils are headline-grabbing government announcements accompanied by a ringfenced pot of money to deliver a particular policy priority, regardless of what councils are already doing on the ground to achieve the same aim.

“If we can streamline our priorities with government, hopefully we’ll have a greater discussion about how we then deliver within those areas… rather than a diktat from government coming down to tell us how we should be doing it,” she says.

In particular, she rankles at the phenomenon of ministers “riding to the rescue” with cash, perhaps secured through the Barnett formula as a result of increased spending south of the border, to save local services that councillors have had to take “excruciating, can’t-sleep-at-night” decisions to cut.

“That undermines local government, because it makes it look as though local government has made a poor decision and central government is now having to bail us out,” she says.

Earlier this year, the Scottish Government pledged to replace council tax if – and it’s a big if – consensus could be reached in the course of cross-party talks on the future of local taxation.

Macgregor, who is co-chairing the talks with public finance minister Kate Forbes, believes there is an appetite for change.

“Ultimately, it will come down to the steel of politicians in parliament to make very difficult political decisions,” she says.

The challenge will be turning the rhetoric around local taxation into a workable and politically palatable alternative to council tax that can win support across the Scottish Parliament.

If it succeeds, the rest of the UK will be watching with interest.

Article published: 
Mon, 04/11/2019 - 17:00