All bets are off

It’s traditional to kick off the New Year with a ‘predictions for the year ahead’ article, write Andy Johnston and Jonathan Carr-West

This year these have largely been replaced with articles about uncertainty and the impossibility of making predictions. And indeed following a uniquely tumultuous year in UK and international politics and Scotland is not exception to those changes; it does seem somewhat foolhardy to dust off the January crystal ball.

But even if we live in a post prediction world, it’s still worth looking at what we do and don’t know about 2017 for local government.

There are some fixed points. In May we’ll see local elections, using proportional representation voting methodology across Scotland and for the new city mayors in England.

Most people expect the SNP to do well in the local elections and their sights are firmly set on the totemic leadership of Glasgow City Council. A strong SNP showing in local government raises some important questions for the prospects of localism. Will the new SNP Councillors loyally line up behind Holyrood led initiatives that remove their powers or will they argue for the opportunity to demonstrate that they can lead in local government? We await the party manifestos with interest.

With Labour predicted to do badly, attention turns to the conservatives and the Lib Dems. The Lib Dems show some signs of revival as the only explicitly unionist anti-Brexit party, recent parliamentary by-elections suggest that appeal could do well in some parts of the country but this will be put to the test. The Conservatives could benefit from an increasingly confident leader, the Scottish voting system and the inevitable swing of the political pendulum.

In England, Mayoral elections are unlikely to offer many surprises in terms of the results but the key question will be about turn out. Very low numbers risk damaging the credibility of the project whereas an upsurge in public interest could give them real momentum. High public interest will at least raise the issue of greater powers for Edinburgh and Glasgow.

There are also some background themes that we know will dominate the 2017 landscape. Brexit of course, and we can expect (surely?) the broad shape of this to become clearer over the course of the year. In addition, there continues to be speculation about indyref2. There won’t be a referendum in 2017 however, the commitments by the SNP should be enough to convince voters in May and simultaneously provide a useful bargaining chip in Brexit negotiations with No.10.

Finance issues will dominate this first quarter as local authorities consider spending plans and financial constraints will continue to hit hard despite the end of the freeze on council tax. It will be interesting to observe which councils choose to raise the level of council tax for 2017/18. Significant challenges wait in housing, social care and education.

Social care, like housing requires some radical service transformation to make it sustainable but too many people talk about this while continuing to slice budgets and hope that something turns up. Could 2017 be the year in which we see new localist approaches to these services beginning to go mainstream?

And there are broader questions about democracy and community empowerment that could play out in 2017.

Last year, the UK and the United States, saw a populist rejection of ‘politics as usual’. What does that reveal about us as a society and what is the role of local government in overcoming divisions and giving people a real sense that they can shape the places they live in?

At LGiU Scotland, we’ll be working on all of these big questions with policy themes that focus on finding sustainable solutions for local government, public sector reform and the revitalisation of local democracy.

And of course we’ll be working as always to keep our members informed with policy updates and analysis as well as our popular Daily News service.

All the time conscious that just like last year the biggest impact may come from the things we’re not expecting!