SNP president of council body says she's no Scottish Government lackey
Recent weeks have been a “baptism of fire” for the new president of Scotland’s council umbrella body.
Shona Morrison was elected to the role in June. Just two months later, crippling bin strikes saw rubbish piling up in streets across the country.
The crisis was eventually resolved after an intervention by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, with a new pay offer put to trade unions and council workers.
Pizza was ordered to St Andrew's House, the Scottish Government’s headquarters in Edinburgh, as last-ditch talks dragged on into the night.
"I'll never have pizza again," jokes Morrison now.
Speaking to The Scotsman, the Cosla president said: "It was really regrettable the situation we had, but I think important to say don't be in any doubt that we had long and intensive discussions going on between ourselves as the employer and our trade union partners in the lead up to finding a resolution, which we did.
"We were absolutely focused on getting the best deal for our local workforce with the cost-of-living crisis.
"We absolutely understand the pressures that households are under and we wanted to make the very best offer we could."
She said securing "recurring funding" from the Scottish Government "was key to getting a really good deal".
Cosla has frequently criticised the Scottish Government over the funding allocated to councils, and opposition parties have raised concerns about the impact of having someone from Scotland’s ruling party at the helm.
After her election, Miles Briggs, the Conservative MSP, said he feared Morrison “will prove to be just the sort of lackey Nicola Sturgeon wants in charge".
The Liberal Democrats compared it to “putting the fox in charge of the hen house”.
The Scotsman put these criticisms to Morrison. “That was new ones I hadn’t heard, so thanks for that,” she joked.
Morrison added: "My position – I'm elected by the 32 leaders of Scotland's local authorities, so that's a rainbow coalition of political groups.
"So regardless of my affiliation with a party, I represent those 32 leaders and I carry out the mandate that they give me.
"I think it's fair to say that I obviously have my affiliation with the Scottish National Party, but I'm here to carry out the clear mandate from 32 leaders, made up from all different local parties."
So you reject the charge of being a lackey? “I do,” she said.
Asked if she thought councils had been underfunded by the Scottish Government, Morrison said: "I think that we have absolutely seen stresses within the system over the last few years, and I think key to that is just ensuring that local councils have much more flexibilities around spend, and less direction when it comes to spend."
Cosla has issued stark warnings over the future of council funding.
In evidence submitted to a Holyrood committee, the umbrella body said the Scottish Government's spending plans for the coming years would mean a £743 million real-terms cut to frontline services.
This is the equivalent of 20,000 fewer jobs, it said, or around 10 per cent of the current local authority workforce.
Morrison said issues around ring-fenced spending, which sees funding provided to councils for specific policies, had been "robustly" discussed with the Scottish Government.
Councils’ core budgets are being squeezed, Cosla argues, with cuts disproportionately hitting services that do not have a statutory basis, such as waste, roads and sports facilities.
Morrison, who is the co-leader of the SNP group at Moray Council, said “flexibility” around spending would be a key issue for Cosla going forward.
She said: "That really was an area that we wanted to press with the Scottish Government, and I'm really delighted that we've absolutely opened up those discussions."
She said a “bespoke approach” was required for local authorities, adding: “So what is meaningful in Moray, for instance – it's going to be something completely different in Glasgow City Council.
"Every council has a different demographic etc.
"So absolutely key is flexible spend, and that's discussions we are already in."
Elsewhere, the Scottish Government’s plans for a new National Care Service have caused controversy. Cosla insists the proposals threaten the delivery of vital services.
Morrison has a background in nursing and previously sat as a board member of NHS Grampian.
She said she was "really passionate about preserving that local approach to how we provide care", adding: "I really believe that is our greatest concern, that by centralising how we deliver health and social care, that we lose that localism and that good practice."
The Cosla president said there had been a "very unified response" from councils.
But does a National Care Service raise safety issues?
"I think there's elements of the National Care Service, when we look at career progression and things like that, that are positive,” she said.
"But I would be worried about the fact that centralisation does take away that local knowledge. Local knowledge, as we know, is absolutely key."
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon wants to hold a second independence referendum in October next year – a move that would require the co-operation of councils to help deliver it.
Have discussions taken place within Cosla about a second referendum?
"No, we haven't had any discussions,” Morrison said.
“It's been an incredibly busy period. The cost-of-living crisis has been absolutely our clear focus since I came in, and pay negotiations have obviously been a part of that.
"We are absolutely clearly focused on trying to resolve – we have ongoing pay negotiations at the moment, National Care Service – that's really where our focus of work is at the moment."
Morrison said communities across Scotland are going to be in an “incredibly vulnerable position this winter”.
"I think it's going to be an extremely challenging winter for local authorities, as it is in Scotland, in England, all around the world – it's a global issue,” she said.
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