Local Government and Devolution

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2018 Local Government Service Group Conference
23 February 2018

Conference notes the ongoing devolution agenda across the UK nations – at national, regional and local government levels.

While there are some welcome national government developments in relation to the Trade Union Act, health and social care integration and the treatment of the public service workforce in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, there are concerns about ‘devolution’ to combined authorities in England, which have largely been established without prior or ongoing consultation with trade unions, service users or community organisations. Conference welcomes the Greater Manchester Protocol between the trade unions and public bodies encompassed in DevoManc, which is an example of good practice in trade union engagement in combined authorities.

Conference believes that little thought has been given to the impact of combined authorities on local government workers, already facing massive job losses and attacks to their pay and conditions of work or future bargaining arrangements.

While differing from each other, most combined authorities tend to focus on planning, infrastructure and transport, often ignoring wider social problems and issues resulting from austerity, privatisation and the run-down in public services, housing and the voluntary sector. Intervention in the local economy is largely restricted to infrastructure, regeneration focussed on retail and support for business, rather than ways to ensure that local people, local government – and other public service workers – have a greater share in local wealth, as has been demonstrated by exciting projects in Preston and other ‘Fearless Cities’ across the world seeking to create forms of ‘municipal socialism’.

Conference believes that national devolution within the UK must be the source of greater strength within our union, through sharing of good practice and policies across the UK nations. Devolution with local government must make a virtue of its proximity to the people it serves, the local economies it operates in and the workforce it employs.

Conference notes that UNISON’s ‘Devolution Protocol’ made a good start at creating a learning environment around devolution within the four UK nations, but needs to be refreshed and more widely disseminated.

Conference also notes that local government in all four UK nations contains a severe democratic deficit, with just one third – or fewer – women councillors, a minority of women leaders and chief executives and most combined authorities and the Northern Powerhouse effectively run by men. This is in contrast to a local government workforce in which 76% of employees are women and the fact that women are most likely to use local government and other local public services. There are few Black, disabled or LGBT councillors either.

Conference therefore calls on the service group executive to strengthen UNISON’s approach to devolution and involvement in combined authorities by working with the NEC and:

1)Reviewing the Devolution Protocol to ensure that UNISON captures the benefits of devolution and developing an education and engagement project to ensure its widespread ‘roll out’ and use;

2) Monitoring developments within combined authorities and keeping branches and regions informed of them;

3) Developing ‘rules of engagement’ in combined authorities, which cover trade union involvement, strong equality principles, opposition to privatisation and a new local economic strategies which seek to harness local ‘wealth’ for local people;

4) Providing guidance and support to branches and regions involved in combined authorities on trade union recognition, pay and grading issues, TUPE, continuous service and effective bargaining arrangements which seek to overcome the possible dangers of fragmentation and opting-out of the NJC, SJC or other sector–wide bargaining arrangements;

5) Working with other service groups to examine the impact of combined authorities across the union and develop innovative ways of supporting regions and branches across sectors to intervene in them for the benefit of UNISON members and local people;

6) Working with Labour Link at UK, national and regional levels and the Fawcett Society to develop strategies to overcome the democratic deficit in councils and to encourage UNISON’s women members and those from other self-organised groups to become local councillors;

7) Promoting the service group’s Ethical Care and Residential Care Charters to ensure a fair deal for all care workers where combined authorities are seeking to improve social care provision, integrate health and social care.