Angus MacKay is still a young man - he's only in his mid-thirties. A young politician by anyone's standards. The coming year will undoubtedly bring his greatest challenge yet - solving the escalating problems in Scottish local government.
He was able to announce the allocation of an enormous spending increase almost immediately after taking over from the previous local government minister, Frank McAveety, at the end of last year. He is also taking on the finance role, which chimes nicely with the fact he has£1.2bn to spend on councils.
Local government is the biggest spender of central funds so it makes sense to combine the two, he says - a sentiment echoed in Wales where Edwina Hart recently took over the combined portfolio in the Assembly. But, however carefully calculated, the announcement of individual allocations was greeted with disappointment at some councils and outrage by leaders at Glasgow City Council, which is now threatening to resign from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (LGC, 15 December).
Many of the changes taking place are a continuation of policies worked out between Mr McAveety and the then finance minister, Jack McConnell, who has since been appointed education, Europe and external affairs minister after narrowly missing out on the top job. Taking over from him and Mr McAveety, 36-year-old MacKay is lucky to have the cushion of extra spending to ease the transition.
'The biggest changes we're making are to the way finance is organised at councils in Scotland,' he says. 'There is an enormous increase in local government spending and we are introducing a three-year framework and abolishing spending guidelines to allow long-term planning. The big question is how we reinvent and relegitimise local government. We need to redefine services and the way they are delivered. We need to value councils and find out what sort of support they need.
'We are lucky in Scotland because we have enough critical mass to get things done, but the country is manageable and can be run effectively. As deputy minister for justice, I dealt with a number of drug action teams. I was able to visit every one in the country. Keith Hellawell would never have been able to do that in England.'
Mr MacKay has a pedigree of high spending announcements. Two months before taking over as finance and local government minister he announced a record spending increase of£100m to tackle drug crime in his capacity as Scotland's equivalent of the drugs tsar in England and Wales.
As deputy justice minister he was faced with tackling Scotland's widespread problem with drugs and associated crime. In 1999, 340 Scots died as a result of drug misuse and there are around 30,000 problem drug users in a population of just over five million. Most people are aware that drugs and related crime affect inner cities, but it is also increasing in other areas of the country.
Drug dependency is an ever-increasing problem, one which affects individuals, families and society as a whole - and it is getting worse in rural areas as well as towns and cities, according to a number of council chief executives.
When Mr Mackay announced the extra cash in September last year, he said this is the sort of 'bread-and-butter issue' the Executive should be tackling. The money helped provide: education on drugs in every school; support for families where the parents are drug users; treatment centres; workers providing treatment for prisoners; and training and employment schemes.
He said: 'Things will take time to happen on the ground. Services don't appear overnight. They need to be properly planned and resourced, and with the right personnel. I believe that - with the backing of the Scottish Executive - drug agencies, the private sector and communities everywhere will rise to the challenge of what is ahead.'
Perhaps the most dramatic period of Mr MacKay's previous incarnation as Scotland's drugs supremo was a visit to the United States, which resulted in the Scottish Drug Enforcement Agency being set up.
Mr MacKay visited police in Washington DC, officers in Queens, New York and a prison in New Jersey, to learn about crime prevention and rehabilitation of offenders.
The DEA in the US is commonly associated with armed police, stake-outs and shoot-outs but there is no similar organisation in England or Wales.
The SDEA was set up to 'catch those who profit from human misery' and was backed by a national advertising campaign.
Chief constables were delighted at the time. MacKay said the SDEA would ensure: 'All those working on drug enforcement have as much information as possible about the drug scene in their area, who the key players are, where and how they operate and what substances they are dealing.'
Mr MacKay was also on hand when the US government presented a 'national crime victim award' to Dumfries and Galloway Council and police for support given to victims' families in the aftermath of the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 which killed 270 people in 1988. He was involved with the implementation of Scotland's fifth act of Parliament, the Adults with Incapacity (Scotland) Act which affects the management of property, financial affairs and personal welfare of people affected by incapacity.
Before becoming deputy justice minister, Mr MacKay was finance convenor at City of Edinburgh Council until July 1999. Leader Donald Anderson said: 'Angus adopted a more strategic and inclusive approach to the budget process. He took the view that strategic reserves should be kept. He left the council in a much improved position and we now have the lowest cumulative council tax increase in Scotland.'
A few days before Christmas, Mr MacKay announced£26m for 36 projects across Scotland. The money comes from a modernising government fund and goes to innovative projects which use new technology and promote joint working between public bodies. Following the announcement, Mr MacKay said: 'A good example is the partnership Dundee City Council has put together . . . to develop a 24-hour city-wide interactive leisure and culture portal. This has the potential to benefit the citizens of Dundee and boost tourism by showing what Dundee has to offer.'
Mr MacKay's arrival, accompanied by a massive spending increase, should, he says, encourage councils to 'think out of the box' - to think about achieving excellence rather than just
'As finance convenor at Edinburgh I was told 'this is how much money you've got', then it was a matter of identifying priorities, which areas would be protected and which could be enhanced. But it is no longer a budget-cutting agenda. People want to earn their money, enjoy their work and get something out of it. The thinking has gone from 'how can we survive?' to 'how can we achieve excellence?' There are now significant amounts of capital and this is going to mean very much improved services - but working cleverer rather than harder.'
He is promising extensive discussion with both the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and individual councils to establish policies addressing a broad range of issues.
'We can't just tinker with things,' he says. 'It's not a case of 'add water and stir'. We need to learn the best way of doing things rather than just reinventing the wheel. After the fire-fighting is over, what is our agenda? Looking at financial distribution, we got our hands dirty. We got to the guts of it. We'll soon have a very clear view of the future of local government.'
Mr MacKay certainly got his hands dirty. Glasgow City Council could quit COSLA
as a result of its spending allocation, radically changing the face of Scottish local government. He may have to get them dirtier still if the pay dispute remains unresolved and some council services continue to crumble. The extra money will help his reign as local government minister, but diplomacy will be paramount.
-Angus McKay - a career in politics
Angus MacKay is minister for finance and local government. He was previously deputy minister for justice.
Mr MacKay (36) was elected to the City of Edinburgh Council in 1995. He was the convenor of the finance committee and director of Lothian Region Transport as well as director of the Edinburgh Festival Theatre.
A freelance consultant and former campaign officer with Shelter, Mr MacKay was educated in Edinburgh.
He worked as a parliamentary assistant to Dr Mo Mowlam MP when she was shadow spokesperson for city and corporate affairs between 1990-92.
Mr MacKay is MSP for Edinburgh South.