Presidential Conference Speech
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Good afternoon colleagues.

As President of COSLA it gives me great pleasure to welcome you, albeit virtually, to the keynote event in the Scottish Local Government Calendar – the COSLA and Improvement Service Annual Conference 2022.

I am slightly disappointed that I am not standing on the exact same spot within the Crieff Hydro Hotel where I stood five years ago to give my first Presidential address back in 2017.

Back in 2017 - I was delighted to have just been elected President of COSLA in the June of that year, I was truly honoured to have been given such an opportunity.

I was proud and grateful for the trust that my Local Government colleagues from across the political spectrum placed in me to become COSLA’s fifteenth President and only the third female President following in the footsteps of Jean McFadden and Rosemary McKenna.

I was delighted to have been offered the chance to undertake a job that I believe is undoubtedly one of the most significant political jobs in Scotland and I have cherished my five years as the COSLA President.

Key to what I would consider having been a successful term has been a constructive cross-party approach to how we do our business, with a united Local Government voice, and I want to thank councillor colleagues for enabling that approach.

I genuinely mean that – COSLA is you, our membership. Our member councils – our leading councillors ably supported by their political colleagues, chief executives and staff.  There is no doubt in my mind that the more we work together on a cross party consensual basis, the better the outcome.

This address to Conference today is not about COSLA’s successes or achievements – it is about those of Local Government.

COSLA represents what you our membership tell us, you give us the mandate to do things for you and everything that we do, we do on your behalf - for our Communities.

We are the sum of our 32 vital component parts and thereby the voice of Local Government in Scotland and that must never be forgotten.

  • Local Government is just as important as the other spheres of government.
  • COSLA is the enabler to support Local Government’s role as a sphere of government in Scotland.

Before I get into the meat of my speech there are a few further ‘thank-yous’ I would like to put on the record.

Firstly, the Vice President- Councillor Houston - who has been a constant support to me during these last five years.  Graham, thanks for all your hard work and endeavour since 2017, particularly on the Local Government Blueprint to which I’ll refer later.

I would also like to thank the Spokespersons who have led in their individual portfolio areas and then together with the Presidential Team we have formed a real “team Local Government” ethos.

I would also like to thank the Political Group Leaders at COSLA for their wise counsel over the last term and their support and political nous during sometimes challenging times.

And lastly but by no means least the staff at both COSLA and Improvement Service – from the Chief Executives Sally Loudon and Sarah Gadsden to every single member of staff in each organisation who go above and beyond for their respective organisations and the wider Local Government family and who have been a great support to our political team.

Thank you all for all that you do.

When I took to the floor at Crieff back in 2017, although I was aware of some of the significant ‘Political’ challenges that lay ahead close to home - little did I, or anyone else, know that a pandemic was round the corner.

Looking ahead then at the challenges facing us I doubt even the most pessimistic of us could have predicted what lay in store in the latter part of our five-year term to 2022.


Incredible to think that in 2017 very few people outwith perhaps the medical or science sectors spent any time thinking about Coronaviruses.

Make no mistake, COVID-19 has been the single greatest public health issue any of us have faced, and I sincerely hope, will face in our lifetime.

A public health issue that has had a real and lasting, profound impact on every aspect of our lives from our health to the economy, - from our schools, our care homes to our businesses. Indeed, to our basic way of functioning as a Society.

From the Spring of 2020 until now, Covid-19 has dominated our work across every aspect of Local Government and within the Communities we are elected to serve.

As I and others, including the First Minister whom we will hear from later today, have said many times the response from Local Government, the work that has been done with partners and our communities has been absolutely herculean.

Local Government’s clear priority throughout the Covid- Pandemic has been to keep our communities as safe as possible and to keep on top of the health, societal and economic difficulties that it presented.

Every single one of us at Council and Councillor level put every effort into supporting our communities through the initial outbreak and onwards – our response was incredible and for that we should be immensely proud.

Proud but not surprised - by Local Government’s response.

Once again, as we have done in other emergency situations – Local Government rose to the challenge. We did what was best and we protected our communities during the challenges and sadly, the deaths and illness that Covid-19 brought into our Communities and indeed to our front doors.

On behalf of our communities, we came together as a sphere of Government and showed real and determined community Leadership.

As we now look at the green shoots of recovery, we must consider how we, as a sphere of government play a real and meaningful role in helping people to ‘Live Well Locally’ by building back fairer and stronger.

We all know that the most disadvantaged in our communities, as is always the case, were the hardest affected by Covid.

We must not just revert to how things were, instead we must take the chance to help the most disadvantaged in our communities. If there is one good thing to come out of this Pandemic - it should be this.

Before I move on from Covid – I would just like to pay tribute to all those we have lost to Covid and those who still suffer as a result of this loss and would be grateful if Conference could pause for a moment to pay a silent tribute.

Thank you all for that

Aligned to the theme for our lobbying campaign in the run up to the Budget, the theme of this years’ Annual Conference is Living Well Locally.

Local Government and Scottish Government share an aspiration to enable everyone to ‘Live Well Locally’

Enabling people to Live Well Locally is what Councils do.  Every day, they work hard to create the conditions to make this possible – in villages, towns and cities, in rural areas and islands.

Our unique role in delivering a whole system approach to support communities, families and individuals should never be underplayed because we are the only sphere of Government or any other sector that HAS THE ABILITY TO DO THIS.

During the COVID-19 response, councils demonstrated local leadership, using their knowledge to deliver local solutions – from the most remote areas of the country to the centre of our cities. COVID-19 has changed people’s lives forever and for many, their local environment now matters more than ever. But only properly and sustainably- funded Local Government can enable everyone to ‘Live Well Locally’.

To many it will feel like I say this in every Conference Speech, but the bottom line is that it is an enduring theme.

The erosion of our core budget is probably the biggest single challenge facing Local Government today.

I remain positive however and hope that the erosion of Local Government’s core Budget is something that can be addressed through joint work on a Fiscal Framework – the rules around our funding relationship with Scottish Government.

We expect progress on this in the upcoming Spending Review to achieve more stability, certainty and transparency as well as more local discretion on revenue raising in order to allow us to make an even bigger impact and difference on the ground in communities across Scotland.

Sadly, in Scotland we are continuing to see an increasing centralisation of services and national policy direction, including a growing level of ring-fenced and centrally directed funding.

This is challenging the role and autonomy of Local Government as well as our ability to determine local priorities that best suit the needs of our constituents. None more so than the proposals for a National Care Service that will be the largest change facing the structure of Local Government services since the 1996 reorganisation.

When the Scottish Government’s Consultation was launched, my initial response to the media was that the Consultation cuts right through the heart of Governance in Scotland – I said that not only does the creation of a National Care Service have serious implications for Local Government – it is an attack on localism and on the rights of local people to make decisions democratically for their Place.  It is a distraction from the investment in services and people that is needed now.

It once again brings a centralising approach to how decisions which should be taken locally are made.

The reality is that structural change does not, by itself, bring about better outcomes for people to ‘Live Well Locally’.

Centralisation is the enemy of everything we stand for in Local Government.  It does not lead to efficiency and effectiveness, it leads to increased cost, inflexibility, an inability to respond to local requirements and lesser outcomes for communities.

All of this in the context of a Budget for the next year, described by many council leaders as the worst they have ever seen and which led our Council Leaders to come together in a strong letter to the First Minister.

I want to reflect on the Programme for Government and a Local Democracy Bill that we will see at some stage during this Parliamentary term which will undoubtedly affect our future.

We need a Local Governance Review that cements Local Government’s place as a sphere of Governance in Scotland. It would be great to see a picking up of the pace on this with a positive outcome that puts Local Government in its rightful place, as leaders in our communities.

As I said, I am positive by nature, and COSLA is a positive organisation and Local Government is a positive sphere of Governance in Scotland and despite the difficulties – Local Government always rises to the challenge and I would like to use the remainder of my time today to outline some of our successes.

We need to shout about the successes of Local Government, something COSLA has done through its recent campaigns, that showcase YOUR great work.  Not our great work- but yours.

Obviously, I will not cover them all - however –what I can say is that they are both varied and many.

I have picked a few areas where there has been real positive impact, making a real difference on the ground.  COSLA’s work must continue to enable councils to make a difference on the ground and thus make life better in communities across Scotland.

I would like to start with a first for Scotland the Joint sponsorship between Scottish Government and COSLA of Public Health Scotland. HS.

As I say this was a first in Scotland and followed the Public Health Reform work. This dual accountability means Public Health Scotland as a body is accountable to both national and local government in Scotland. From my perspective this was a really important step for the new organisation – noting this planning was done before COVID – but has certainly led to strong collaboration over the period of the pandemic. For the first time, the role of Local Government in tackling health inequalities and improving public health has been given meaningful recognition. And we look forward to working with Public Health Scotland on improving Scotland’s health outcomes as we move forward.

Next there is the importance of COSLA speaking on your behalf, with one united voice for Scottish Local Government.

Seems obvious- but very true- and not always easy.

We make our biggest impact when we speak collectively – focussed on promoting and protecting Local Government.

At Leaders meetings, we have been able to reach consensus on many challenging issues, and we have become stronger as a result.

I want to thank all our group leaders in particular for helping to achieve this.

Throughout this five-year term, Local Government has responded to the unexpected; adapted; embarked on new areas of work; developed partnerships, and always whilst still serving our local communities.

I talked earlier in my speech about our Covid response and the magnitude of such an effort undoubtedly added a complexity to COSLA’s already diverse workload. And yet, we have continued to make remarkable progress over several policy areas.

In October last year, COSLA jointly committed to a COVID Recovery Strategy with Scottish Government to deal with the immediate impacts of the pandemic.

The strategy will support and build on the partnership approach taken during the pandemic and focus on public services, jobs, financial security and the wellbeing of Children and Young people.

Against this ever-evolving backdrop, our focus on other matters has not been deterred.

From funding and the economy to education and housing, we have worked to deliver what we know matters to local communities.

We have continued to deliver essential services to our communities and done everything we possibly could to allow them to ‘Live Well Locally.’

Most people in this virtual room know exactly how crucial our councils’ work is – and how hard we work to ensure that COSLA and Local Government is respected and listened to not just in Scotland, but also across the UK and in Europe.

Specifically on this point, the last 5 years have undoubtedly seen improved direct contact with a broader range of UK Ministers. While COSLA has always met the Secretary of State for Scotland regularly, these last 5 years have seen us build on that.

As I’ll touch on later we had several discussions direct with UK Ministers on the impact of EU Exit in Scotland. In recent months, we have seen discussions with Home Office Ministers around Asylum and Refugee issues making them aware of the support that all Scottish councils can and do provide.

On Levelling Up and Shared Prosperity Fund, the Secretary of State, Mr Gove, as well as speaking here today, engaged directly with COSLA in advance of his White Paper.

I hope that, as spheres of Government, we can develop that relationship further.

Mr Gove knows my view, that if we are truly to enjoy the greatest added value from that relationship, then we need to be working together from the earliest possible point, identifying issues and opportunities, and working together on shared outcomes.

That means, and the First Minister knows this because I say the same to her, that we must trust one another to share information and thinking before policy is fully formed.  This means that we can help shape UK policy for the better in Scotland, rather than being asked to respond to or make the best of effectively a 'done deal'.

Another success and a first for COSLA is Our five-year report – ‘This is our Story.’

‘This is our story’ is up at Convention tomorrow and goes into some detail in each of the policy areas that the Spokespeople and Boards have led on over the last five years..

But I wanted to touch on some of the big-ticket issues in my speech to Conference today.

I have picked examples of where the approach taken by COSLA has had an impact on the ground resulting in lasting benefits for our communities. Or at least felt by our communities for years to come.

COSLA launched a new Blueprint for Scottish Local Government in September 2020.

It sets an ambitious vision for the future of Local Government and communities in Scotland – one based on the empowerment of people and communities.

The document has been framed around six themes and will form the basis, and lays the foundation, for the next COSLA plan that will take the organisation through the next five years.

In a nutshell the Blueprint provides a narrative around the kind of country we want, and about the changes that could make a real difference to communities across the country and enable them to ‘Live Well Locally.’

On Education Reform we have continued to work to improve the whole learning experience for our children and young people even during the toughest of covid times. The start of this five- year period also saw the whole Local Government family mobilise to constructively challenge the centralisation threat by setting out in a positive manner the importance of keeping education local.

In Early Learning and Childcare we have ensured that more of our younger children are receiving even more funded places and delivered a multi-year funding package although we are disappointed that we saw a cut for this, this year in the Budget.

In the area of Children and Young People’s Mental Health our work has led to a comprehensive network of services across all Local Authorities to support children and young people's mental health and wellbeing in a locally responsive way, for example access to counselling in schools.

On Refugee resettlement – again we saw the whole Local Government family coming together with all 32 councils supporting the UK Government schemes for people fleeing Afghanistan.

I think we can all agree that these last 5 years have seen Local Government really stepping up to fulfil our humanitarian responsibilities.

But just a point on this- I wanted to use my speech to Conference to put on record our view that hotels are entirely the wrong accommodation for people who have arrived in Scotland having left their own homes in incredibly difficult circumstances - Scottish Councils stand ready, willing and able help achieve appropriate settlement.

On Barriers to Elected office - we saw a real opportunity to promote increased diversity amongst Scotland’s Councillors, and COSLA’s Barriers to Elected Office Special Interest Group was established in 2018.

It has since developed widely - welcomed guidance for Local Authorities on lone working and family leave for councillors and identified support for women working through the menopause.

There is still more to be done and work has started on supporting a more diverse range of people, particularly women of colour, to consider standing as candidates in 2022, boosted by COSLA’s ‘Why You?’ social media campaign which ran in the Autumn of last year.

Recently, a joint statement was made by ourselves and Scottish Government in relation to Councillor’s remuneration.  I hope that we will see action on this at pace after the elections.

Over the last five years, we have made a real and concerted effort to strengthen relations across the Local Government family and with the wider Public Sector, including the Improvement Service Public Health Scotland, the Digital Office and Accounts Commission, Trade Unions, The Business sector, Police, Fire, SEPA, Crown Estate – the list is large.

Over the last few years on behalf of our membership I have taken part in various summits involving fellow Presidents of national associations as well as a range of international virtual events in the run up to COP26, ensuring that the voice of Scottish Local Government has been heard and that the role we can play internationally has been recognised.

COSLA’s involvement with COP26 was a particular highlight hosted by Glasgow and what an amazing job they did.

“Team COSLA” had a great presence in the Blue Zone and Green Zone during the conference, facilitating and developing connections and sharing good practice that will contribute to work towards Net Zero worldwide.

I was pleased that our combined lobbying to get the role and responsibilities of local and regional governments formally recognised and reflected in the final Glasgow Agreement was successful.

EU Exit has been at the forefront of COSLA’s work over the last few years. As President I have engaged nationally and internationally to build greater awareness of the impact on our local communities, councils and on regulatory and other services.  Clearly, we did not achieve all that we might have hoped for, however I am confident that, through some additional resourcing that we secured, we did mitigate some of the impacts locally and, being positive again, our work continues to build on opportunities outwith the EU.

After almost 20 years since the UK signed the European Charter of Local Self-Government, the status and standing of Local Government in Scotland is set to be strengthened with the incorporation of it into Scots law.

COSLA believes that incorporating the Charter of Local Self Government into law in Scotland can fundamentally strengthen Scotland’s overall system of democracy and create the foundations for an enduring and progressive partnership between national government, Local Government and communities.

While we wait with some impatience for the Bill, as amended by the Supreme Court, to return to the Scottish Parliament for approval, we should be clear that incorporating the Charter into Scots Law is not just a symbolic step or a matter of democratic principle but key to building on local and national government’s joint commitment to improve outcomes and renew democratic participation across Scotland.

The final big-ticket issue I would like to highlight is the improvement in our Communications work.  This improvement has not gone unnoticed by the membership and that is pleasing.  They are the ones that matter.

When I was first appointed President you the membership asked for our communications to be more balanced and pro-active. You asked, we listened and in my view, have delivered.

As well as continuing with our traditional media work our social media work and presence has grown at pace.

Our campaigns have been relatively successful with a real sense of “Team Local Government” at their heart.

Campaigns like Fact Friday and This is Local Government use real examples from our member councils- that’s why they resonate.

When I was appointed COSLA President in June 2017 – I said that it was one of the top political jobs in Scotland and I said it again at the start of this presidential address – because I stand by this claim.

And having done the job for 5 years, I would re-affirm the significance of this highly varied role to which I have been honoured to have been elected.

I finished my first Conference speech in 2017 with a quote from Mother Theresa.

I will finish this one with a quote from Campbell Christie’s Report on the Future Delivery of Public Services

And I picked these words from the partnership section of his report because partnership is the way forward and because they encapsulate the relationship we must have with Scottish and UK Governments and communities to facilitate positive change for the people in our Communities.

Campbell said: A second key objective of reform should be to ensure that public service organisations work together effectively to achieve outcomes - specifically, by delivering integrated services which help to secure improvements in the quality of life, and the social and economic wellbeing, of the people and communities of Scotland.

But we know, in practice, there are barriers to achieving this simple goal:

A key objective of public service reform should be to ensure that public services are enabled and incentivised to work together effectively to achieve outcomes. Specifically, they should deliver integrated services helping to secure improvements in the quality of life, and the social and economic wellbeing, of Scotland's people and communities.

Basically he was saying that we must all work together to enable people to Live Well Locally

Local Government is clear and confident about where it must go as a sphere of Government,

We are the locally elected members for our local communities, and it is important that our voices are heard in shaping the way services are delivered and funded to allow for people to ‘Live Well Locally. ‘

Local Government is at the heart of ensuring everyone can Live well Locally.

It is our ambition for everyone in Scotland

but the rhetoric can only become reality with respect and freedom for our role, coupled with fair funding.

For those coming back next term, you must pick up the baton and help in achieving this ambition.  For those of you who are not standing again, we thank you for all you have done, and for upholding our principles and values and wish you well for the future.

Thank you.