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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, September 24, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 24 September 2020

Agenda: First Minister’s Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Draft Infrastructure Investment Plan 2021-22 to 2025-26, Protection of Workers (Retail and Age-restricted Goods and Services) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Decision Time


Portfolio Question Time

Communities and Local Government

Good afternoon. The next item of business is portfolio question time. As usual, to get as many members in as possible, short, crisp questions and succinct answers would be extremely handy. The portfolio is communities and local government. I remind members that questions 4, 7 and 8 are grouped together and that, when I come to the end of that section, I will take supplementaries to that group. Question 1 is from Alexander Stewart.

Local Authority Decision-making Powers

To ask the Scottish Government what plans it has to empower local authorities to take decisions that are right for their communities. (S5O-04625)

Our programme for government provided an update on the joint local governance review with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. That represents an important opportunity for our councils, wider public service partners and communities to develop place-based proposals for alternative governance arrangements that reflect the principle of subsidiarity and our commitment to local democracy.

As we enter a second spike in the pandemic, jobs are at risk, homelessness is on the rise and services are being forced to deal with massive pressures as never before. Can the cabinet secretary give assurances that proper resources will be made available to ensure that all local authorities can meet the ever-increasing demands from their communities?

We have provided local authorities with resources to help with some of the challenges that we have all faced over the past six months. We recognise the future challenges around jobs and some of the issues that Alexander Stewart has outlined.

Resourcing has been the subject of quite regular discussion between my colleague Kate Forbes and the United Kingdom Government. She has set out a list of pretty pragmatic requests to bring about some further flexibility that would enable local authorities to respond to their particular challenges and needs. I make a plea to Alexander Stewart that, if he recognises the financial challenge that we are all facing, he lend his support to the calls made by my Government colleague.

Our local government colleagues regularly lobby us on their need for more of the powers and flexibility that are at the Scottish Government’s hands at the moment. Can the cabinet secretary commit to pursue measures such as the tourism levy and replacing the council tax to give councils the financial flexibility to enable them to come out of the pandemic?

Again, my colleague Kate Forbes is in regular contact with COSLA on the financial situation of local government; in fact, she is pursuing the fiscal element of the local government review with local government. Again, perhaps Sarah Boyack would like to lend her support to the calls that Kate Forbes has made to the UK Government to give local authorities the flexibility that they need to meet the financial challenge that they face. We will continue to work with local government and support it as we have over the past five or six months in the face of the global pandemic, as we collectively try to support the communities that we represent.

On that point, we have seen communities pulling together during the coronavirus crisis. Can the cabinet secretary say a bit more about how the Scottish Government has supported organisations and local authorities to do that?

At the start of the pandemic, I announced £350 million of community support, which went to local authorities, the third sector and communities themselves. It also enhanced the support around, for instance, the Scottish welfare fund so that, at an individual level, people were able to access additional support from the fund if they required it. More important is the way in which communities across Scotland have responded. They have accessed the supporting communities fund and the wellbeing fund to enable them to support their communities as best they can. We want to build on that good practice, which is exactly what we are doing through the social renewal advisory board. We are capturing what that partnership working has achieved, which will enable us to move forward in partnership to deliver for our committees in the future.

Food Banks

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports that independent food banks have seen at least a doubling in demand for emergency food parcels compared with last year. (S5O-04626)

The rise in food insecurity we have seen during the pandemic is deeply concerning. We have invested more than £110 million to tackle food insecurity, including ensuring free school meal provision during the summer holidays.

We know that the main reason for food bank use is low income. We back calls from the Independent Food Aid Network, the Trussell Trust and countless others for the United Kingdom Government to reverse benefit cuts and extend the furlough scheme, to provide financial protection for those who need it. The UK Government could also follow Scotland’s example whereby we are tackling child poverty head-on with the new Scottish child payment.

I recently visited Lo’gelly Lunches. The group is grateful for the supplies that it receives through the food fund, but it expressed concern that the fund is coming to an end, given the growing concerns about redundancies and unemployment. Although today’s announcement of the job support scheme may provide some relief, we still expect to see a drop in household incomes, and Lo’Gelly Lunches and other food projects predict that there will be on-going demand during the winter. What consideration is the Scottish Government giving to extending the food fund, given that many lockdown restrictions are continuing and increasing?

We are considering what we can do next, precisely for the reasons that Claire Baker has outlined. We are coming to a particularly challenging time, when the days are getting shorter and the nights longer, the weather is colder, people will be financially struggling and the need for support will continue.

We are considering the options to work through what support we can put in place, and we will keep the member updated as to what that means in practice. Undoubtedly, winter will be a challenging time, so there will be a continued need for us to work with our local government partners and the third sector partners that she highlighted to support people as best we can.

Community Councils

To ask the Scottish Government whether community councils have been able to fully contribute to local government during the Covid-19 pandemic. (S5O-04627)

Local authorities have statutory oversight of community councils under the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 and are responsible for ensuring that their community councils are fully able to contribute to local government. Complementing that, the Scottish Government has worked closely with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the Improvement Service to ensure that community councils have the support that they need during the pandemic.

During the pandemic, Highland Council has, in effect, removed community councils from planning decisions, which I consider makes communities feel more isolated. Will the Scottish Government commit to ensuring that community councils are properly resourced and continue to be involved in local planning decisions?

I would be interested to hear additional details about that. If the member contacts me to tell me what his concerns are, we will be able to look into that bit more closely.

More generally, we have been working with our community council liaison officers and COSLA to make sure that community councils have been supported during the pandemic. I recently spoke to Alison Evison about that.

I commit to ensuring that that support is in place and that the structures to support community councils are as adequate as they can be. I am conscious that the model scheme for the establishment of community councils has not always been as flexible for community councils during the past five or six months. Again, that is something that I will commit to looking at.

If the member wants to write to me with his specific concerns, I will certainly look into those, because we want to ensure that the democratic structures that we have in place are functioning as best they can, given the challenges that they face.

Local Authorities (Pandemic Recovery)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to help local authorities recover from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. (S5O-04628)

In order to provide additional financial assistance, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance wrote to the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 9 September seeking approval for a package of financial flexibilities that would allow Scottish councils to address the short and medium-term funding pressures that they face due to Covid-19. A response is still awaited. Although we welcome the additional Covid-related funding that we have received from the United Kingdom Government, it is not enough, and we will continue to press the UK Government for additional financial support and fiscal flexibilities for the Scottish Government and local authorities. We would welcome any support that this Parliament can provide in that respect.

Throughout the pandemic, community resilience groups have been invaluable in assisting local authorities to reach our most vulnerable people. What steps can be taken to support and enhance the work of such groups as we move forward?

I absolutely concur that community resilience groups have been incredibly important. The country’s resilience would not have been what it is had it not been for the endeavours of the many volunteers and community groups who did all that they could to keep people looked after. I hope that such work will have been supported, in part, by the announcement of the £350 million-worth of funding that we outlined on 18 March.

However, we want to move from the immediate response phase towards recovery, so we will now refocus part of the supporting communities fund into a community and third sector recovery programme. That will include business support and investment to help organisations to adapt their operations and improve income generation to increase their sustainability. The funding will also support community groups in the wider third sector to respond to the on-going impact of the pandemic.

Further to that, as I mentioned in my earlier reply to Shona Robison, Shirley-Anne Somerville and I have also established the social renewal advisory board to capture good practice and build on what we have seen happening across our communities, to ensure that we can support them in continuing their good work in the future.

Local Authorities (Scottish Government Support)

7. Alexander Burnett (Aberdeenshire West) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the support it is providing to local authorities in their response to Covid-19. (S5O-04631)

To date, the Scottish Government has committed to providing £379 million in additional direct grant support for local authorities, and a further £972 million of general revenue grant to replace the potential loss of non-domestic rates income resulting from our Covid-19 rates relief measures. We are also providing £135 million, over the next two years, to support the return to school, and up to £100 million, which will be provided through integration authorities, to support tackling challenges in the social care sector.

Local authorities are struggling, under the cuts made by the Scottish National Party Government, to fund the maintenance of vital local infrastructure—nowhere more so than in Aberdeenshire, which has a network of bridges. One such example in my constituency is Park bridge, through the closure of which two communities are now divided.

What additional support can the cabinet secretary provide to support strained budgets so that the current backlog of maintenance can be dealt with and our communities can be kept united?

I do not recognise Mr Burnett’s characterisation of the financial situation as being a result of the Scottish Government’s actions. In fact, it should be noted that Scotland’s local authorities have enjoyed a cash-terms revenue budget increase of 3.6 per cent over the period between 2013 and 2020, despite a decade of the United Kingdom Government’s austerity policies.

It is also appropriate to look at the situation in which English authorities find themselves. They have faced a cash-terms revenue budget increase of 14.7 per cent over the same period, which is an equivalent real-terms reduction of 22.8 per cent.

The matter of the bridge, which will be so important to Mr Burnett’s constituents, will be one for the local authority to consider, given that we have provided resource to tackle such issues. However, we recognise that the situation is challenging, so if Mr Burnett would like to write to us about it, we will engage with him in a constructive way. However, perhaps he should frame his questions in a slightly different way. We want to ensure that the current situation that people are having to endure is not made worse by decisions that are not conducive to our communities flourishing.

Local Government Services (Covid-19 Impact)

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of the impact of Covid-19 on local government services. (S5O-04632)

I appreciate that local government has been at the heart of the response to Covid-19 and has worked tirelessly to respond to local circumstances in order to keep the most vulnerable in our society safe and essential services available.

The Scottish Government is working closely with local government, predominantly through the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers, to understand how best we can support them and to identify priority areas that might require support during this challenging period.

The Scottish Government recognises the challenging operating environment facing local authorities, and we have provided additional financial support and significant flexibility to enable them to respond to local issues and to provide communities across Scotland with the services that they expect and deserve at this time.

The cabinet secretary will know that, due to the crucial role that local authorities have played in delivering services in response to the pandemic, every single council in Scotland is forecasting a significant funding shortfall, which can only impact adversely on the future delivery of local services.

All councils in Scotland made a collective request to the Chancellor of the Exchequer for a break in Public Works Loan Board repayments, to give them much-needed financial breathing space after the United Kingdom Government unilaterally imposed an increase in the interest charges. Does the cabinet secretary agree that the UK Government should reverse that decision, which would go a long way towards supporting our local councils and protecting vital local services?

I absolutely agree with Keith Brown. Again I point to the letter that my colleague Kate Forbes has sent, and the representations that she has made, to the UK Government, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer in particular, to get approval for a package of crucial financial flexibilities including a loans fund repayment holiday that would allow our councils to address the short and medium-term pressures that they face due to Covid-19. We await a response to that.

The postponement of the UK budget does not make it any easier; it makes it all far more difficult. Again, if that is something that my colleagues on the Conservative benches could raise with their colleagues at Westminster, we would be grateful. We are not precious about who gets the answer. Taking off our party-political hats, if they can do it, I ask them please to do so, because it is critical for the communities that we all represent. It is nonsense that we are having to deal with some of the uncertainties that are being pushed upon us and I would certainly hope that the UK Government responds positively.

Next is a brief supplementary from Patrick Harvie.

Councils are being affected not only directly but via commercial operations that they own. Is the minister aware of the situation at the Scottish Event Campus, which is owned by Glasgow City Council, where hundreds of workers have already been dismissed or removed from furlough before furlough has ended, without consultation, and this after many years of concerns about the employment standards that they face and the way they are treated?

Does the minister agree that the employer must immediately suspend those notices of termination and begin a proper consultation? Surely—

That is not brief, Mr Harvie. Sorry—it is not.

—we should expect better than that from our publicly owned businesses.

I thank the member for raising the issue. I pledge to engage with my colleagues in Glasgow City Council to make sure that they are doing all that they can to support people at this time.

On a broader general principle, we want people to be treated with dignity, especially as things are so uncertain at this point in time. I pledge to engage with the council to see whether there are any ways in which we can address the concerns that the member has outlined.

When Covid came along, one impact was that a lot of local authorities stopped allocating houses. Many authorities have yet to start their allocations. The housing problems are just stacking up. Will the Government intervene to try to get housing moving again in Scotland?

I thank the member for raising that important issue. Of course, the situation has been challenging over the past six months. We are pleased, though, that Fife Council has started its allocations this week and my colleague Kevin Stewart continues to engage with all authorities to make sure that the support to get things moving in the way the member outlines can happen as quickly as possible. We are very pleased that Fife has been able to start this week.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that partnership work between the Scottish Government, COSLA, local authorities and the third sector has been key to providing support where it is most needed, with local authority grants, the removal of some ring fencing and the roll-out of the supporting communities fund for the third sector?

Yes, I would absolutely concur with that. It has been critical not just in relation to the individual actions from the individual organisations that Bill Kidd has mentioned but in relation to that collective effort, with people rolling up their sleeves, getting on with the job and focusing on the task at hand.

Sally Thomas from the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations borrowed a phrase that is very apt—no silos, no logos, no egos. It is about people just focusing on what needs to be done, which has enabled the country to show the resilience that it has and has enabled us to generate the positive outcomes that we have seen.

We now need to capture that spirit; we do not want it to be prompted only by a pandemic. We need to work out what the ingredients were that enabled that to happen so that we can continue that good work.

Social Housing (Affordable Rent)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it has taken since 2019 to ensure that social housing rents are affordable to tenants. (S5O-04629)

Individual social landlords are responsible for setting rents, in consultation with their tenants, and are required by the “Scottish Social Housing Charter April 2017” to set those rents at a level that tenants can afford.

We continue to have a clear interest in rent affordability—even more so, given the current economic circumstances. Before passing costs on to tenants, landlords should look closely at how they can manage their organisations effectively to keep rent levels as affordable as possible. We are also continuing our work to drive procurement efficiencies in the social sector to offset other upward pressures on rents.

When assessing grant applications for our record investment of more than £3.5 billion in affordable housing, we check that proposed registered social landlord rents at completion are in line with our published social rent benchmarks.

Although I understand that the Scottish Government cannot dictate to social landlords and that they have a process to go through to check affordability, I have examples of cases where that is not happening. It is important that rent is affordable to the constituent, and that what is done is not just about going through a process. Can the minister advise me on how best to address the issue?

First and foremost, it is about engagement with the housing association to ensure that the consultation on rent rises is right. Most registered social landlords do that absolutely brilliantly. I do not want to see lip service being paid to consultation, so I would be happy to hear from Ms Maguire about that.

One of the key things that I can do is ensure that new homes are set at the right rent benchmark level. We have invested £16 million in affordable housing In North Ayrshire in the past wee while, and all the completions that RSLs have made for us have had that affordable level absolutely bang on the mark.

Earlier in the week, Shelter Scotland revealed that 70,000 children are on social housing waiting lists, which is a completely unacceptable situation. That is compounded by years of Scottish National Party cuts to local councils in areas including Glasgow and South Lanarkshire. When will the SNP start taking housing seriously, reverse the cuts and allow councils to reverse the housing shortage and deal with issues such as rents and repairs?

I do not want anybody to be on waiting lists, which is why the Government has delivered more than 90,000 affordable homes since coming to power in 2007. I remind Mr Kelly that all the previous Labour Government managed to deliver was six council houses, all of which were in Shetland. We will continue to invest in social housing. I remind Mr Kelly that his colleague Iain Gray said that, although that previous Government put the right homelessness legislation in place, it did not build the homes to deal with what was required. We have delivered, and we will continue to do so.

Covid-19 (Vulnerable People)

To ask the Scottish Government, in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, how it is working with local authorities and third sector organisations to help to protect vulnerable people. (S5O-04630)

We have worked closely with partners, including local authorities and third sector and community organisations, to support individuals who are most at risk during the pandemic. Backed by initial investment of £350 million through our communities funding package, we have made more than £110 million available to tackle food insecurity, announced £43 million to tackle digital exclusion and made over £80 million in awards to community and third sector organisations to take forward projects that support the wellbeing of individuals across Scotland.

In the programme for government, we set out our intention to establish a new community and third sector recovery programme to continue to support people and communities in responding to the on-going impact of the pandemic.

What support will the Scottish Government give local authorities to help to regenerate communities in areas such as West Dunbartonshire in my region, which is the third most deprived area in Scotland, and to address the inequalities of health and wealth with a long-term solution?

In the programme for government, we set out our commitment to community-led regeneration. If my memory serves me correctly, it is worth £275 million. That should enable communities such as the one that Maurice Corry describes to access funds and support to take forward projects that are close to them. We recognise that regenerating our communities is far more sustainable if it is community led and supported.

There are other areas that we can explore in considering how to support and improve the health and wellbeing of people in the most deprived communities. Last month, I launched “Tackling child poverty: second year progress report (2019-2020)”, which set out the range of commitments that we have taken forward to support people who are living in poverty. We also intend to open up the Scottish child payment to applications, which will help to reduce child poverty when the payments start in February.

That concludes portfolio questions. I thank the cabinet secretary, the minister and members, as we managed to get through all the questions.

There will be a short pause before we move on to the next item of business.