David Maddox : History will decide success of concordat
IN LESS than two years, it has earned its own place in the political lexicon. The "historic concordat" as Alex Salmond always calls it – and opponents often sarcastically parrot as the "hysteric concordat " – is the first thing on his lips whenever his government is accused of failing to deliver.
But judgment is yet to be passed on whether the "historic" nature of this agreement between the Scottish Government and local authorities is one of a new beginning – or failure.
As the concordat enters its second year, there is a broadly favourable response from Scotland's council leaders when asked their views on the deal.
The idea, negotiated and agreed by the Scottish Government and Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla), was that by accepting to freeze the council tax for an appropriate sum of money and working towards some Scottish Government aims, councils would have the chains taken off them over public spending and have a much freer hand on where their money would go.
But while council tax has been frozen by all 32 authorities for the past two years, one of the consequences of the concordat is that SNP pledges writ large in the 2007 election manifesto can no longer be delivered – and in the first year, several rows exploded.
Nowhere was this better illustrated than in the confrontation over providing free school meals for P1 to P3 children, an SNP election promise which councils signed up to in the concordat but were not obliged to deliver.
Out of the 28 council leaders who responded to The Scotsman, only 15 were able to guarantee that free school meals would be introduced in 2010 as planned. Many others say that the Scottish Government needs to provide more money for the initiative.
Angus Campbell, leader of the council for the Western Isles says: "The economic climate has changed significantly since the concordat was agreed and all councils are faced with increasing financial pressures."
And Eileen McKinsley, leader of Clackmannanshire Council, believes the argument has undone much of the concordat's good work: "It was the SNP government's decision to use the free school meals issue for party political advantage in the Glenrothes by-election that broke the spirit and goodwill of the concordat. This will be difficult, if not impossible to regain."
But among the 16 council leaders supporting the Scottish Government position, along with Labour Cosla president Pat Watters, is Peter Grant, the defeated SNP candidate in that by-election. He says: "I have made clear my view that every council in Scotland committed itself to it, knowing how much additional money was coming in to meet the additional costs."
A similar argument is brewing over reducing class sizes of P1 to P3 classes to 18, another SNP election pledge, described as an aim in the concordat and left in the hands of councils. Many councils, including ones with SNP coalition administrations such as Aberdeen and Edinburgh, would rather close schools to save money.
In effect, the concordat arguably ended up as a further devolution of power from Holyrood to councils which has made the Scottish Government look even more impotent – lacking in powers it wants on reserved issues and handing much of its actual authority on devolved matters to others.
Perhaps not surprisingly, most council leaders want the concordat to continue after its initial three-year period and only a few believe it has resulted in cuts, instead blaming the dire economic circumstances and tighter public spending. But there are still question marks and some feel the new freedoms are not all that were promised.
The Liberal Democrat vice-president of Cosla, Neil Fletcher, a senior member of Aberdeen's administration, has highlighted two potential pitfalls. The first is a review going on in the background over money allocation. Aberdeen gets the lowest and is one of a group of councils which is unhappy with the current arrangements. But the beneficiaries of the funding system mainly in the west of Scotland led by Glasgow, are likely to fight tooth and nail to stop any reallocation. The dispute could see any chance of concord disintegrating.
And Mr Fletcher says he does not want the concordat to be renewed: "Aberdeen City Council has never signed up to the concordat, mainly because we could never agree to the current financial settlement, and the way it is distributed. I signed the concordat on behalf of Cosla, but would never have done so on behalf of Aberdeen."
However he adds: "We would wish the bulk of the agreement which defines the working relationships to continue, but the financial implications are something we could never sign up to."
And although he shares power in the Granite City with the SNP, Mr Fletcher has made it clear he too thinks the use of the concordat as a political stick by Mr Salmond has dangerously undermined its credibility.
"It is disappointing what is essentially an agreement about managing the relationship between central and local government has been so heavily party politicised," he says.
"The blame for this must lie with the SNP. Every time Mr Salmond claims credit for the 'historic concordat', he lays the concordat open to be blamed by non-SNP politicians for all the ills facing local government."
The concordat was supposed to create a new relationship between central and local government – but as the recession deepens and the 2011 Holyrood election approaches, the question remains over whether Mr Salmond will allow councils to dictate terms in domestic policy and whether self-interest for different parts of Scotland as well as party political interest will ultimately undermine this "historic" loose coalition of interest.
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Wednesday 19 June 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 16 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 12 C to 20 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North east