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Henry McLeish, Scottish local government and devolution minister, has challenged councils in Scotland to seize the ...
Henry McLeish, Scottish local government and devolution minister, has challenged councils in Scotland to seize the initiative and start modernising ahead of the creation of a Scottish parliament.

In an interview with LGC just after the McIntosh report on local government was published, Mr McLeish suggested it was time to turn away from the very prescriptive approach traditionally taken by central government. 'One of the key things is for local government to take bigger ownership of its own agenda.'

Councils were now standing at a watershed, Mr McLeish said. His task over the next six months was to provide the encouragement to ensure they seized the opportunity available to them.

Mr McLeish was clear there had to be change. 'Local government cannot stand still. I want to see the renaissance of local government and I think we are on the eve of that.

'McIntosh and the Scottish parliament have provided councils with a new agenda. They have substantial new money. They are now in a position where they can shape their own future and can start to fight back,' he said.

At the same time, Mr McLeish painted a picture of a future in which local government worked with the Scottish parliament to renew democracy and build a better government in Scotland.

The workings and internal structures of the parliament were not yet decided, he said. But councils would undoubtedly be involved at the pre-legislative phase on the big issues facing Scotland such as social inclusion, drugs, environment and transport and community safety.

He also spoke of councils being involved in providing evidence to parliamentary committees.

A covenant which would regulate the terms on which central and local government deal with each other under the Scottish parliament, as proposed by Mr McIntosh, would be a mechanism for reassurance. More importantly, councils would be offered access to parliament.

'I want to see a more focused agenda, more effective joint working which respects the role of each player,' Mr McLeish said. 'At every point in Holyrood's deliberations, local government will have very good access to MSPs and will be consulted.'

Unlike his English counterparts, Mr McLeish does not talk of offering councils carrots and sticks. He led Fife RC for five years and was a councillor for 14 years, and professes to feel a huge warmth for local government.

But he acknowledges local government has its enemies in Westminster and in the Scottish Labour Party. He makes clear the clock is ticking for Scottish councils to take steps to address their poor public image.

Mr McLeish refers repeatedly to the need for councils to address the credibility gap between the public's generally good perception of council services and the poor perception of local government itself.

He welcomes the recommendations in the McIntosh report as providing councils with the means to start doing that. 'What I really want to see now is an explosion of new ideas,' he said. 'I don't really accept the view thateverything has a price tag. It is in the long-term interests of local government to be seen to be the creator and innovator.'

One of the areas where councils could start innovating, ahead of any legislation from the Scottish parliament, is in reforming their committee structures, he said.

This and the party whipping system were picked out for particular criticism by Mr McIntosh, who recommended some form of executive or cabinet system with an enhanced scrutiny role for non-executive councillors.

He wants to improve the public perception of members, speaking of 'parity of esteem' between councillors, members of the Scottish parliament, Westminster and Brussels. 'We need the highest quality of representative everywhere in politics and in government.'

He accepted Mr McIntosh's proposal that the pay of leading members, whether in a cabinet or some kind of group system, needed to be reviewed to ensure it reflected their increased responsibilities.

However, he warned against devaluing the scrutiny role of councillors by dividing them into an executive and backbenchers.

'Nobody involved in local government now should be classified as a backbencher,' Mr McLeish said. 'Local government is too important. But the executive/scrutiny issue is one that should be debated extensively.'

Another area where councils could take action now was in developing innovative partnership programmes with the private sector to rejuvenate their area, Mr McLeish said.

He also spoke of the challenge of working with other agencies and partners to address cross-cutting issues such as community safety.

Mr McLeish's warm praise for the Independent Commission and its work goes some way to plugging a very obvious gap. Of 450 responses to Mr McIntosh's original consultation paper, none came from the Scottish Labour Party.

The party argues that its response to the commission will be tantamount to a council election manifesto and so will not be published until the New Year. Wider speculation for this failure to respond ranges from the Scottish party's reluctance to add more heat to the debate about proportional representation and a deliberate decision to let the Independent Commission do the party's policy leg-work.

However, Mr McLeish welcomed more controversial topics raised by Mr McIntosh - such as the introduction of proportional representation to council elections and the potential for elected provosts - as important issues which need to be debated.

'Anything which strengthens local government and enhances its credibility in the public's eye has to be given a chance,' he said.

He acknowledged the lack of support throughout Scotland so far for elected provosts and made clear that he personally was not an avid proponent of the idea.

The issue, a key part of the Labour government's modernisation plans for England, needed to be debated some more, he said. But if opposition hardened, then it was possible for policies encouraging elected provosts to be 'left unimplemented'.

Mr McLeish did not shrink from some of the broader implications put into play by Mr McIntosh. He acknowledged, for example, that the number of councillors would need to be re-examined.

Mr McIntosh had touched on the sensitive issue of funding even though it was excluded from the commission's remit. 'There is no doubt in my mind that the Scottish parliament will want to look again at the issue of finance,' Mr McLeish said.

He stressed that all post-war reforms of local government had addressed structural issues such as boundaries and tiers of government.

'For the first time in a generation we are now tackling some of the serious issues which will influence the quality of services,' he said.

He believes his task is to improve morale and 'raise the sights' of local government to seize the opportunity presented by the Scottish parliament.

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