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Scotland’s councils must radically change how they operate and collaborate with partners in communities, if they are to improve and maintain services to their communities.
That is the main headline to emerge from Audit Scotland’s latest report into Scotland’s local authorities, which underlines several of the OSS’ key messages of the past few years, notably that we need to develop new ways of collaborative working across Scotland that create more sustainable, modern facilities and services, and address the huge slide in activity levels due to poverty and inequalities.
The challenge is that reductions in funding to councils for the past two decades, and in turn to sport and leisure facilities and services, have now taken most councils beyond the crossroads point at which they could pause and rethink how they develop sustainable provision. Across Europe, governments have been leading on this for the past 10-20 years, and found that partnership working across health, education, criminal justice, business and communities has turned around participation levels, improved health and wellbeing at all age levels and reinvigorated communities. The lack of leadership on this in Scotland remains arguably the main topic of conversation across the sport, leisure and physical activity sector, and now increasingly rudderless councils are simply switching off the facilities.

As more councils report plans to close sport, leisure and culture facilities – those not ring-fenced by strong statutory requirements for funding – Audit Scotland stated that the Scottish Government and COSLA urgently need to finalise the planned ‘New Deal’ settlement for local government, allowing for more long-term planning, flexibility and transparency in councils’ budgeting process. Currently, an increasing proportion of funding is ring-fenced for national priorities which constrains councils from making decisions about how to best use money to address the local needs of their citizens and communities.

Adit Scotland’s report said: “Councils must now rethink how they work together, and with local partners and communities, to provide financially sustainable services whilst tackling national issues such as climate change, child poverty and inequalities. Few councils provide services jointly or share support services across different councils.

“Councils also need better data in order to ensure that they can demonstrate that their services are meeting their citizen’s needs.”

This last point has been made by the OSS on many occasions, to many councils and Scottish Government, but still there is a reluctance in Scotland – which contrasts sharply with European governments – to fund the research that uncovers the data and analysis needed to point the way to more sustainable solutions.

Tim McKay, Acting Chair of the Accounts Commission said:

Councils have gone beyond the point where making savings is enough. If the change needed doesn’t happen now, some services will continue to get worse or deeper cuts will be made. This will impact communities and individuals that are already at crisis point with the effects of inequality and persistently high poverty.

Councils need to have open and honest conversations with their communities and staff about the future of council services.

Another key point made by the OSS over recent years is the need to invest in prevention, where modest funding of community sport and physical activity can yield significant savings in health, education, criminal justice and the economy. This website has many examples of the research sharing evidence of how and where that works, from using sport activity to increase educational attainment and school attendance, to using data analysis to reshape interventions that tackle poverty and inequalities.Still, however, the Scottish Government and key agencies are not listening.

William Moyes, Chair of the Accounts Commission said:  

Change is needed now – it cannot wait for a National Care Service. Action is needed to tackle funding pressures, which are under increasing stress from rising demand and cost pressures. The workforce challenges are considerable, with mounting unmet need.

We need to see services focus on prevention, with appropriate funding in place to transform the way services are delivered and to improve lives.