David O’Neill: The value of local government

Councillor David O'Neill. Picture: Contributed
Councillor David O'Neill. Picture: Contributed
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I CONSIDER the third sector to be a tremendous source of community benefit and it is a valued partner to local government.

However, in his ­article on this page last week, Martin Sime, chief executive of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, portrayed himself like a gnat on an elephant’s bum, slightly annoying but incapable of any real impact.

In ordinary circumstances, I would not have replied but given the national debate on the future of local democracy in this country as we approach the referendum and given the grossly misleading views expressed by Martin Sime, I felt it necessary to put the record straight on behalf of local government.

Local government has been at the heart of community benefit for hundreds of years. Clean water, social housing, education and even the police service are all products of local government’s commitment to innovation and meeting needs. Local government has lost none of its historical relevance and is equally committed to community benefit today as evidenced by our development of community care, youth employment, etc. For Martin Sime to say he doesn’t see how local government adds value is simply to suggest he walks around with his eyes closed.

As to his accusations of tribalism, particularly with regard to protection of our staff, I am unclear exactly what point he is making. Local government is Scotland’s biggest single employer and, of course, as a quality employer we are committed to the protection of our staff. We also recognise that in many parts of Scotland local government is the main supplier of quality, sustainable jobs with a significant training and development component. More than one in ten people employed in Scotland work for local government and that employment contributes both to fragile local economies and to delivering a comprehensive range of services. Is that not the essence of community benefit? Why would we not want to protect it? We have about 360,000 employees and over the last three years that number has reduced by at least 10 per cent. That’s 36,000 jobs, so any suggestion of an overwhelming commitment to staff protectionism is simply nonsense.

Everyone must realise that Martin Sime is not a disinterested observer in all of this. He doesn’t want fewer jobs or less money spent on services, he just wants those jobs and that money to be in the hands of his member organisations. His article is a thinly disguised resource grab. He is as much part of the establishment as I am. The difference is, and it is a significant one, I was elected by local people on my record as a Councillor. Martin Sime was appointed by people the general public has never heard of, at least in part to pursue their self-interest.

However, he does raise three key issues upon which we do agree. Local government will not secure its democratic relationship with local communities while so much of its funding is delivered nationally. The framework of local service delivery and local democracy could change as a result of further devolution and a recognition that in some countries where we consider local services to be excellent, they have more councils (260 in the case of Sweden) than we do should be an important part of that debate. Lastly, councillors do understand that we need to show that what local democracy does is to add value to service delivery. Demonstrating openly and honestly exactly what this value is is important for the coming period.

Martin Sime shows poor understanding of the current tension between national and local government. That tension can exist between national and local government is both undeniable and unsurprising. The question is how it is dealt with. At the moment, I have a mature, robust and working relationship with my colleagues in national government. My expectation and intention is that the current tensions will be worked out within that relationship in a way that satisfies all of us and, most importantly, delivers community benefit. Martin Sime is not directly involved in the serious relationship between national and local government. It is therefore difficult for him to have an accurate understanding of its resilience and sophistication. Surely he should realise that how we get on is in one sense unimportant. That we are capable together of delivering community benefit is. That’s what local government does and that’s what it will continue to do.

Right at the beginning of this article, I recognised the tremendous value of the third sector. Why can’t Martin Sime do the same towards local government and work with us constructively to develop ­additional community benefit? «

Councillor David O’Neill is president of Cosla