Q&A: Is local government collective Cosla heading for a schism?

Council services Cosla helps local councils makes collective decisions on public service policies

Is Scotland's local government umbrella body the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla) heading for a schism?

Two of Scotland's local councils - Dumfries and Galloway and Aberdeen - have said they are planning to leave and there's speculation a number in the west of Scotland will follow.

So what are the issues?

1. What is Cosla?

Cosla represents the collective interests of all 32 councils in Scotland. Councils choose to join Cosla and pay a subscription because they think it is in their interests to do so. The organisation has its own staff and offices in Edinburgh. Its main role is to lobby on behalf of local government, represent the collective views of councils and deals with pay negotiations. But because it represents councils across the political spectrum it is rarely able to take a strong public stand on issues of controversy such as the council tax freeze.

2. Why should anyone care if their council chooses to leave Cosla?

Well - at one level, it's one for the anoraks. Councils chose to join this organisation which works for their collective interests. If a council quits, it doesn't make any difference to local services, the terms and conditions of staff or how much you pay in council tax. What is more interesting are the reasons why some councils and councillors are wondering whether remaining in Cosla might be the right thing to do. Basically, this move exposes tensions in local government over funding - in particular over the way the Scottish government's money for councils is distributed between the 32 councils.

3. Two councils have said they'll leave. Might more follow?

Well there's been speculation for some time that some of the Labour councils in the west of Scotland - Glasgow, Renfrewshire, Inverclyde, South Lanarkshire - might decide to leave. At the root of it all is money - and the way government money is distributed to councils. As a general rule, about 80% of every council's budget is from central government - and there's a complicated formula that's used to calculate just how much each council gets. Some Labour councils have been pushing to get that formula changed. But not surprisingly, any move to change that formula would have both winners and losers and those who feel they'd lose out don't want change. The thinking among some Labour councillors who'd been pushing for change is that if Cosla agreed, if the whole of Scottish local government agreed, then it might happen. But if it doesn't happen and they pull out of Cosla they might have a freer hand to fight the Scottish government.

4. Why would a council actually want to leave. Will quitting really help them get a better deal from the Scottish government?

This is one challenge. The Scottish government holds the reins - they give the cash. There would be no guarantee the funding deal would be any better for a particular council. But I think the feeling is more that some councillors feel membership of Cosla isn't value for money. Because Cosla represents all councils of all different political persuasions, it can rarely take a stance on controversial issues - it has been individual councils who have condemned, say, the terms of the council tax freeze. Now Glasgow City Council's likely to discuss whether to stay in Cosla between now and the end of March. One thing they'll be looking at is whether a number of councils in the west of Scotland might be able to work together, lobby for their interests with central government and the like, at a far lower cost - without supporting the staff or overheads of Cosla which has staff and a big office in Edinburgh. And there is the argument that four or five councils of a similar political persuasion may be more powerful lobbying collectively than one organisation having to say something all 32 basically agree on.

5. But there must be a downside too if Cosla were weakened?

Indeed. One important thing Cosla does is negotiate nationally set pay and conditions for council staff. Over time, without Cosla, might wider differences in pay and conditions emerge? Trade union Unison would rather Cosla stays together and fear breakaways simply weaken the message and encourages divide and rule. The other thing is there's been concern for years over alleged creeping centralisation in Scotland. In fact, Cosla's looking just now at how local government might be strengthened after the referendum. The fear would be that without one organisation representing councils, any process of centralisation might be harder to counter.

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