Unravelling the Concordat

The Concordat would appear to be in its death throes.  Councils, and now COSLA, are urging an end to the council tax freeze on the basis that it was only ever meant to last for three years.  But that applies to the whole shebang.  If one bit goes, then it might all go.  Which on one level, is a pity. 

At its heart, the Concordat’s intentions are sound, built around key SNP principles of local accountability and sustainability.  Practically, it gave councils the opportunity to spend much more of their annual funding, as well as invest efficiency savings, in local priorities.  In return, they committed to delivering on key flagship government policies.  The full list is available here.

The Scottish Government has by and large kept to its side of the bargain.  It has significantly reduced the ring fencing of local authority funding, much to the consternation of Scotland’s voluntary sector.  And it has allowed councils to keep their efficiency savings, while taking a light touch to monitoring and resisting attempts to add statutory reporting burdens.  

What of local authorities?  Some policy commitments have been delivered, but often only where additional funding has been provided, such as for the council tax freeze and to increase the number of police officers.  Moreover, progress has sometimes had an unintended downside:  thus, the total number of respite care weeks has increased but provision for disabled children and young people has gone down;  kinship care allowances have been introduced but local authorities pay different rates and some carers have also lost out on UK income related benefits. 

There have been well documented problems with other flagship policies.  Teachers are now threatening to disrupt the roll out of Curriculum for Excellence, the commitment to introduce free school meals in P1 – P3 has been totally sidelined, and the reduction of class sizes is patchy across Scotland, even in SNP administrations which surely could have been relied upon to deliver.    It is almost impossible to tell if councils are delivering on other commitments.  There appears to be no collective analysis on whether care home quality has improved.  The data on pre school provision counts teacher contact – it’s up but still only 70% of children have access to a teacher – but I couldn’t find any statistics on the level of provision for 3 and 4 year olds.   As for whether school pupils are getting more vocational training in colleges, who knows?

While there are difficulties drilling down into the detail of the Concordat’s success, generally it can only be seen as a failed experiment.  The key issue is the unwillingness and inability of councils to keep to their side of the bargain.   Not because of partisan politics – some local authorities with SNP led or shared administrations have failed just as badly as Labour ones – but because of a lack of delivery mechanisms to react to the rhetoric.  Worse, after years of being told what to do, when to do it and how much to spend in the process, few have been able to handle the responsibility and opportunity of a free rein.   More time has been spent on drafting the Single Outcome Agreements than on delivering them and their timid approach to target setting will surely mean slow and incremental improvement.   

Attempts to follow the trail of funding are frustrating and forlorn.  Local authorities cannot or will not explain how they now construct their budgets, how they determine the apportionment of money or worst of all, how they are spending it.   There is little accountability, yet we are talking in excess of £11 billion of taxpayers’ money in this financial year alone.  Scottish Government sources admit privately they are as frustrated by these failings as the rest of us.

Yet, councils’ failure to embrace the Concordat is perplexing.  COSLA asked for this approach and got it.  Local authorities might think it cute to maintain that COSLA and not they are bound as signatories to the agreement but ultimately it is they who will rue its failure.  Unravelling the Concordat in order to raise council tax is a risky strategy:  it then allows the Scottish Government to withdraw support for the other measures.  In any event, political parties gearing up for the 2011 elections might shy away from similar, future agreements, particularly if they cannot trust their putative partners to deliver.  Local authorities could find themselves returning to the bad old days of conditional and relentless direction at the very time they need maximum financial flexibility and room for manoeuvre on maintaining service provision.