Local authorities and Integration Joint Boards and the other local bodies overseen by the Commission continue to face a challenging and uncertain future. Local and national pressures continue to strengthen, intensifying issues present before the pandemic took hold in March 2020.
An important such issue is inequality. This affects different geographical areas and different socio-economic groups. Tackling effectively the causes and impacts of these inequalities will take many years. There is no quick and lasting fix. Indeed, the problem is compounded by the rapid increase in the cost of living, which is generally forecast to get worse before it will start to get better.
Councils have a key role to play in reducing the scale and impact of economic inequalities. Success requires careful planning, well- targeted implementation and regular reviews to assess the impact and identify where changes may be needed in policies and programmes. But the need for this comes at a time when Councils are faced with the challenges of recovering from the Covid pandemic.
Local authorities in Scotland must continue to deliver day -to-day services, whilst reshaping their services and how these are delivered. Financial pressures and unexpected increases in demand mean that local authorities need to reduce costs without reducing the quality or availability of services regarded as essential by the populations they serve. The Accounts Commission is clear in its Local Government Overview report that councils need to build back differently, not roll back services to pre-pandemic ways of working. Doing so would be both unsustainable and fail those most in need of help and support.
Councils also face longer-term financial pressures, including managing a lack of certainty and flexibility over funding. They must also consider the impact of major reforms, including a National Care Service, as well as the urgent need to plan in detail how to deliver their contributions to tackling global warming. The contribution of local authorities is to this unprecedented challenge is substantial. Effective medium and longer-term planning is vital.
In this context, strong leadership from councils is needed now more than ever, with new and returning councillors being able and willing to make difficult decisions about where and how to spend highly pressurised resources. A willingness and ability to embrace collaborative working is also critical – with communities, local partners, other agencies and councils.
We know from the speed at which councils, their partners and communities worked together to provide support and deliver services, that this collaboration is possible. Ultimately, it benefits us all.
Councillors must be honest and realistic, with themselves and their communities, as they build recovery into the heart of their plans for the immediate future. They have a responsibility to ensure they have the knowledge and insight to understand their duty, their responsibilities and the impacts of decisions made in response to the pandemic, whether that’s stopping services or delivering differently.
Now, following May’s local government elections, it is critical that new and re-elected councillors use this report, alongside our financial overview report, to help them take forward their ongoing response to the impacts of Covid-19, alongside other priorities including addressing climate change and tackling inequalities across their local communities.
The Accounts Commission will continue to report on the consequences and impacts of decisions made.
Dr William Moyes, Chair of the Accounts Commission