For local authorities, devolution delivered a relationship based on give and take, says Ewan Aitken
I returned to my liturgical role this summer to conduct a couple of weddings.
There are few moments of more contentment and excitement in being alive than the celebration of the love of two people before friends, family and God. Attempting to be creative, I tried to rewrite my wedding sermon. Every redraft, however, returned to the three main themes of loyalty, communication and independence that I had always focused on. Without these, any long-term committed relationship will struggle.
Loyalty means valuing your partner, especially in public, even when they get things wrong. It means having disagreements so that neither partner is undermined in their other relationships or as a person.
Quality communication is the key to coping with relationship disagreements.
Communication is as much about listening as it is talking. Taking time to listen - not just "yes dear, OK dear", but really listening - is the most precious gift between partners. Part of that communication is recognising that your partner needs their independence. People enter relationships as two whole people, and they must not lose that sense of independence. They should share everything, but not lose sight of who they are .
Marriage is a dangerous metaphor to use to describe the relationship between the Scottish Parliament and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. Cohabitation might be more accurate, in the sense that both parties need to be committed to face tough times as well as good times and have a vision of shared priorities. Despite suggesting that these two sides are "shacked up" rather than married, following the fifth anniversary of the Parliament, I have applied the three tests of loyalty, communication and independence to their relationship, focusing on education.
How loyal has either partner been? Both sides have been publicly critical of the other but often that has been around communication rather than the substantive issues (for example, Cosla finding out about proposals via the press). This experience makes Cosla feel undervalued and there is now very much a view that we need to be treated in a way that reflects our parity of status as a legitimate, democratically elected tier of government.
In the committees, one of the best aspects of the Parliament, Cosla does not fear putting its point across. Our contribution in the Additional Support for Learning Bill and proposals to give extra powers for ministers over so-called "failing schools" both challenged the Scottish Executive's view substantially. But that was the right place to do so. That is where debates should happen and be seen as policy discussion, not partners falling out.
Cosla can be caught between wanting to be clear about its position and not wanting to create opportunities for its partner to be attacked. Even though Cosla isn't attacking, it will be seen as having created the opportunity.
When opposition MSPs tried to compare Cosla's view on the true costs of the Bill's proposals with the costings surrounding the new parliament building, that's tough for any relationship.
Loyalty has been tested hardest in the Scottish Negotiating Committee for Teachers, especially in discussions over the national agreement which, of course, is not so much cohabitation as a menage ... trois. Remember, however, that the SNCT would not exist without the Parliament to begin the process. The SNCT working groups are one place where there is a parity of status for all three parties. When decisions are taken, loyalty is paramount. In the responses to job sizing, loyalty to fellow signatories was both crucial and delivered. Only by collectively supporting the original agreement were the partners able to work through solutions for those affected most by job sizing.
Real loyalty is built on communication. Like most relationships, the hardest part of communication is over money. The pound;800 million for the national agreement was delivered, but more is always needed. Often new policies feel like one partner is spending the other's cash. The new charging regime handed down from the Scottish Qualifications Authority was one example.
Another was the spending review process. Access to ministers to make clear our priorities and discuss them was helpful but, while education was in some ways protected, the outcome for local government as a whole was terrible. Many relationships flounder on finance and this one could be no exception.
Time together in a relationship is just as valuable. The most significant change for the better brought by the Parliament is the quantum leap in access to ministers, forging both the formal and informal communication that any relationship needs. Cosla and its constituent members can have real and regular conversations with those whose policies they have to implement. All the education ministers since 1999, especially Peter Peacock, have continued to make availability a touchstone.
This has made a real difference, even when we have had real differences.
And those differences are important. Both partners must keep their own identity to do their jobs properly. Tensions do arise for Cosla when the Executive tries to micro manage, through setting targets or offering local outcome agreements, and then wanting results in six months rather than trusting councils over longer periods.
The public often gets the difference between the respective roles of national and local government confused. I am often asked why councils cannot change legislation. Cosla and the Executive remain clear: the Executive sets policy and Cosla's member councils deliver services within those policy parameters.
Devolution has meant that both have become much more involved in the other's area of responsibility and that has had real benefits. But both partners need to see the limitations of that involvement. With involvement come responsibilities that neither side would want. They need to learn to live within the necessary tension that is created between the two roles.
After five years, do we have a marriage made in heaven or a relationship doomed to fail? Neither, would be my response. There is a need to communicate better but there does seem to be a willingness to do so. The relationship is for the long haul. Expect some rocky roads and some smooth sailing. The worry will come when the talk turns to children.
Ewan Aitken is education spokesperson of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.