Money, governance, local economy, infrastructure and demographics are constant concerns for local authorities everywhere. For three councils along the West Coast of Scotland they combine to create a unique set of challenges, requiring imaginative use of the local government toolbox.
Last week I visited Dumfries and Galloway, Argyll and Bute, and The Highland Council to meet LGiU Scotland’s policy and communication contacts. The purpose of the visits was to find out more about their priorities and better understand how our service could help. Despite the extent of the challenges faced I was, as usual, impressed with the commitment and imagination council staff bring to any problem.
The area covered by these three councils is challenging to govern efficiently, dominated by small towns, sparsely distributed across a landscape punctuated by hills and lochs. The local population is being drawn to big cities meaning that it is declining, especially the future generators of economic growth. I pointed out that there were some similarities with the West Coast of Ireland and that the Irish have developed a 25 year National Planning Framework that helps local authorities to see how growth can be encouraged long term and tackles some of the big issues that transcend the electoral cycle such as large housing developments and infrastructure projects.
Coupled with the geographical factors are the strategic changes within Scottish local government. Dominating this change is the impact of budget constraints on council coffers. Local authorities may not be happy about this but they still have to get on with delivering services and representing their communities.
All three councils were actively looking at income generation opportunities. This could mean making more of expertise within the council such as recruitment capacity, better utilisation of council owned assets such as airports or ferries, or partnering with social entrepreneurs. One example that I will follow up on was the case of the Gaelic College on Skye, which successful in its own right has also been a driver of local economic regeneration.
Better governance is set to be a bit of theme this year. Councils are getting involved in the Local Governance Review, through a ‘Big Listen’ or a series of community reviews. It will be interesting to hear what the people of Scotland want, will they be arch centralisers, or want services delivered close to where they live by organisations they feel they can influence?
My visits were very interesting and useful, I took a lot of specific requests for briefing topics but only one specific action – it’s high time for another LGiU Scotland mug competition. We will work on a suitably challenging question for the local government geeks out there.