Political Control of Scottish Councils

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George Black, Visiting Professor, IPPI

George Black
Visiting Professor, International Public Policy Institute

7 June 2017

The Local Government elections on 4 May resulted, for the first time, in there being no Council in Scotland under majority political control. This compares to the position prior to the elections where there were seven Majority Administrations.

Changes in seats on Scottish Councils

The undoubted winners of the election were the SNP, who won 35% of Council seats, 6 more seats than in 2012. The Conservatives moved into second place with just over 22% of seats, narrowly pushing Labour into third place with just over 21% of seats. The biggest changes for SNP were in Glasgow, where they won 12 more seats, and in Aberdeenshire where they lost 7 seats. The biggest gains for the Conservatives were in Fife, where they gained 12 more seats compared to 2012. The biggest change for Labour was in Glasgow, where they lost 13 seats.

(In considering these numbers it needs to be borne in mind that there are 1,227 seats in 2017 compared to 1,223 in 2012, as a result of a review of ward boundaries.)

The process of key political appointments

Councils must hold their first Council meeting (the statutory meeting) within 21 days of the date of the election. At that meeting, decisions would normally be taken on all of the key political appointments, including the Council Leader and Convenor or Provost (Lord Provost in the four main Cities).

Where agreement cannot be reached on the form of the political Administration then, as a minimum, a decision must be made on the appointment of the Convenor or Provost. However, although it is now over four weeks since the date of the elections, one Council has still to settle on its political control, albeit a Coalition is the most likely outcome.

Working together

According to the Convention of Scottish Local authorities (Cosla), agreement has now been reached on 13 Coalition Administrations, 13 Minority Administrations, 3 Independent Administrations, 1 Partnership Administration, and 1 Joint Leadership Administration.

Although some of these arrangements may yet change, they represents a significant change since the 2012 elections and mean that parties will have to work together even more, whether it be through formal or informal arrangements.

Challenging times

Of course, agreeing a formal Coalition, or accepting a minority Administration, is one thing – making the arrangement work over a period of five years is an entirely different matter, particularly in the case of Minority Administrations which are now in place in almost half of all Councils. Although this would be difficult enough in “normal” times, the challenges that Councils now face as a result of financial and demographic pressures, means it will be significantly more difficult compared to the last five years.

This is likely to be most evident when it comes to setting budgets. Although agreeing on a Council Tax rise may prove to be relatively straightforward, securing support for transformational change and cuts to services will be extremely difficult to achieve, particularly over consecutive years.

Standing up for local councils

In such circumstances it will be vital that there is a strong voice standing up for local Councils, and local services. Historically this role has fallen to Cosla, albeit over the last few years it has been weakened by four Councils forming the Scottish Local Government Partnership. As three of these Councils have now re-joined Cosla this should, in theory at least, put Local Government in a stronger position.

In this respect, it will be interesting to see which parties are prepared to work together at a national level to decide on the Cosla President and senior office bearers as, to a large extent, this will determine the relationship between Local Government and the Scottish Government over the next five years.