It is incredibly kind of you to invite me to speak to the COSLA conference today. Of course this conference takes place against an international backdrop which is deeply sombre and concerning.

I know that in all our minds will be the challenge that is posed to democracy itself by the attack that the Russian leader Vladimir Putin has launched against the Ukraine. I’m sure in days to come all those of us on this call, in local and in national government, will be thinking about what we can do to help the Ukrainian people and indeed to support Ukrainian citizens in the United Kingdom and those who may be fleeing persecution.

I just wanted to say that the record of COSLA providing support to people who have been fleeing persecution in the past has been an exemplary one – whether it’s those who fled persecution from Syria, or those who we are resettling from Afghanistan.

So the first thing I wanted to say is at this sombre time a word of thanks to all of you for the role you have played in helping the most vulnerable in times of international stress and crisis.

But it’s a particular pleasure for me to be speaking to you today as the Minister with responsibility for local government in England but also the Minister with responsibility for promoting good relations between different spheres of government across the United Kingdom.

As Minister for Intergovernmental Relations, it’s my job to make sure the UK government works well with the Scottish Government, the Welsh Government and the Northern Ireland Executive, but also my job to make sure that local government across the UK is championed, that its strengths are celebrated, and its voices heard.

That’s why I regard COSLA as a vital partner in my work.

It was why it was so important for me to have the chance speak to you and your office bearers early on in my tenure, and I am really delighted you have been kind enough to invite me to address this conference.

I am only sorry that even though Covid restrictions are now being lifted across the UK that I can’t yet join you in person – so I am joining you remotely from the UK government’s headquarters in Scotland here in Queen Elizabeth House.

I hope that we will all have the chance to get together in person very soon and that I will have the chance to address further meetings and indeed also the opportunity to see on the ground the great work you and your colleagues are doing.

Since taking on this role my belief in the importance of local government and its centrality to the way in which we can make a difference to people’s lives has only been reinforced.

I was aware in my previous role of how vital local government was in the fight against Covid and getting support to the most vulnerable, but of course there are so many areas where the services that improve the quality of people’s lives and the decisions that intimately affect their lives are squarely the responsibility of local councils.

And it is local council leaders and local government officers who make a difference in all of the intimate areas that matter so much to our citizens. And indeed, if we look ahead, I don’t believe we can make a success of the future without a vital and central role for local government.

Whether it’s equipping the next generation with the skills they need to contribute to the global economy or protecting and indeed enhancing our natural environment for the future; or whether it’s ensuring that towns and cities and villages across the UK are bastions of opportunity and beacons of aspiration. In overcoming all these challenges local leadership will be the crucial, decisive factor in our success.

Ministers whether they are in Whitehall or St Andrew’s House have a role to play.

But it is local government that is responsible for delivery on the ground in a way that makes the biggest difference to individuals’ lives – local government of the community, by the community, for the community – embedded in and drawn from the places they serve, which really makes the difference in so many ways.

Of course I am powerfully aware of that in this role but I am also aware of this having grown up in Scotland.

COSLA has a proud history, founded almost a half-century ago. But the roots of local government in Scotland lie much deeper.

COSLA replaced the Convention of the Royal Burghs of Scotland, the oldest representative body in Europe, with a history stretching back 800 years. Way back then when the central government did little more than collect taxes to wage dynastic wars, it was municipal leadership that was investing in infrastructure, regulating commerce and of course administering justice.

The Aberdeen Police Act in 1795 meant the loons and quines of the Granite City were kept in line by local folk decades before Sir Robert Peel brought order to lawless London.

So local government has been at the front of policy innovation and Scottish local government has the deepest roots, the longest history, and I think the proudest record. Accountable and empowered local leadership has been the golden thread in British history and critical to the success of our peoples.

I feel that when the balance of power tips too far away from local communities and towards central government, that people feel a sense of disempowerment. The control that they need over their lives, the ability to build prosperous futures, is eroded.

That is why when we published our Levelling Up White Paper earlier this month, my department put at the heart of its ambition to overcome some of the geographical inequalities we face in the United Kingdom strengthening local leadership.

Levelling up is a UK-wide mission. Of course, there are tools that my department has in England but the ambitions that the UK government has are for all of the United Kingdom.

Talent is spread equally across our country; but opportunity is not. Disparities persist, between places and within them.

Affluence and deprivation coexist here in Edinburgh, in Glasgow, in Dundee. Between the different areas of Scotland there are areas of outstanding opportunity and success but also areas where we do need to work and to intervene in order to broaden people’s ambitions and horizons.

The differences that I am describing have been a feature of our geography and country for decades and have persisted for decades and under successive governments.

One of the things I want to stress is that overcoming those difficulties is a shared challenge. It is a challenge for governments in Holyrood and in Whitehall, it is a challenge for local government and it’s a challenge that should bind people together across parties, SNP, Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, Green, Independent. All of us have a responsibility to address these challenges in a spirit of putting the common good first.

We need that collaboration as no government, whether local, devolved or across the UK has all the tools within its hands to make our country fairer and more prosperous.

The people we serve want us to work together. Of course, they will have aspirations and allegiances and loyalties to different parties and different places but what they want to see is those people once they are elected serving people without fear or favour.

And that is what the UK government wants to promote.

It’s why we got our longstanding Review of Intergovernmental Relations concluded to create proper, functional machinery to enable the UK government and devolved governments to work together.

It’s why we are going further. We are creating a new Islands Forum – inviting representatives of island communities across the UK, from Shetland to the Scillies, from Rathlin Island to Anglesey, in order to make sure that we tackle common challenges like connectivity and depopulation and access to high quality education.

It’s also why we worked most recently with the Scottish Government, with Kate Forbes to agree two new Green Freeports for Scotland – and I am really looking forward to working with Kate to deliver them because I believe they have the potential to transform the economy of a significant part of Scotland.

We are also working with the devolved governments and local government on transport connectivity across the UK, following the report from Sir Peter Hendy which made the case for greater connectivity between the different nations of the United Kingdom and within them.

And it is why I want to work with you in COSLA, and with your colleagues in Scotland, more intensively and more closely than I suspect any UK government has for a decade.

There has been a tendency for some in Westminster to take the view that we should ‘devolve and forget’ – and therefore the UK government has sometimes been distant from local government outside of England.

I want to make sure that distance is erased. I want to make sure you get value for money from both of the governments that your citizens vote for and give their taxes to.

An example of that is the new UK government hub from which I am speaking. It’s home to officials from a range of UK departments. My department has a new team here in Scotland to help local government bid for the funds that are required and to provide support alongside the Scottish Government.

And they are not all based in Edinburgh by default – they live in and know different parts of Scotland.

This team is working with your members every day, along with Scottish government colleagues, to concentrate on effective delivery.

I hope we have seen some of that over the last 12 months thanks to your good work.

Scottish communities have secured £192 million through our Levelling Up and Community Renewal Funds.

There is a new carbon-neutral ‘21st Century Village’ in Dumfries and Galloway with 470 smart, adaptable new homes.

The Pollok Country Park Stables and Sawmill in Glasgow, being restored to glory as a net zero hydro-powered heritage centre.

We have also devoted £20 million an imaginative new masterplan for Aberdeen city centre, that Aberdeen Council came forward with, creating a new destination market-place and public square in that great city.

This is just the start. The Levelling Up White Paper published last month has set out other steps we want to take.

We want to move public research and development investment beyond London and the south-east of England, and towards Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the north of England.

We are also backing Sottish business with improved access to finance through a new British Business Bank fund in Scotland – which will be worth over £150 million.

We are also working with universities and the Scottish government to create ‘Silicon Clyde’. Glasgow City Region is 1 of 3 Innovation Accelerators, which has access to a £100 million fund to create private-public-academic partnerships and make the region an even stronger world centre for new tech.

Also, we are replacing the old EU structural funds with our new £2.6 billion UK Shared Prosperity Fund. That money will go straight to local councils in Scotland so that they can invest in local priorities: improve communities and place; people and skills; and supporting local business.

We will work with you, with the Scottish Government, and other partners to make sure that funding works for local communities. It is my intention that that funding should be directly allocated to councils but of course we will work with the Scottish Government to make sure we do that in tandem with our own ambitions of the support that you need.

If we are to really empower local leaders to make a difference in the communities they serve then one of the things we always need to keep under review is not just the resource we give you but the powers you exercise.

In England we recognise that we need to enhance devolution. For the first time we set out a new coherent structure for increased powers for local government across England.

We’ve guaranteed that by 2030, every part of England that wants one will have a new devolution deal with new powers, including the possibility of metro mayor or combined authority mayors being set up in counties and regions which hitherto haven’t had this opportunity.

I have found in my discussions with local councils of all political colours, that there is a broad welcome for this agenda – that local government leaders want to strengthen their area’s voice and see more power and control passed to local people.

Of course, different structures work for different areas in different ways. We are not imposing a uniform structure, but we do have a unified ambition. And we are inviting people to enter voluntarily to enter in negotiations with us to see how we can enhance devolution.

In Scotland, the picture is a wee bit different because obviously the relationship between local councils and the Scottish Government is rightly one where the Scottish Government leads. But it is the case where we can work together.

The UK and Scottish governments are jointly delivering City and Growth Deals covering the whole of Scotland.

And earlier this month, we agreed the Falkirk Growth Deal, hot on the heels of last year’s Borderlands Growth Deal.

£1.5 billion of additional UK government funding has been invested or committed to Scotland as part of this programme since 2014.

But while City and Growth Deals are a good thing and bringing benefits daily to citizens, unlike the counterparts in England, these are not devolution deals. Extra resource yes, extra ambition which is welcome, but not extra powers.

It is worth reflecting on what Lord Smith of Kelvin way back in 2014 as well. In his landmark commission he said:

There is a strong desire to see the principle of devolution extended further, with the transfer of powers from Holyrood to local communities.

Almost 8 years on, since the Smith Commission, new powers over income tax, welfare, and the Crown Estate have passed from Westminster to Holyrood.

But I wonder if more might be done to empower local communities from Holyrood in the way Lord Smith suggested.

Surely a stronger Aberdeen, a more wholly empowered Glasgow and a devolution deal for Dundee cannot be bad things?

And isn’t it the case that a more innovative Inverclyde or a more assertive East Ayrshire would work for the citizens of those communities?

My offer to COSLA, to the Scottish Government, and to local government across the UK, is partnership.

We have seen over the last 2 years what we can achieve when the different spheres of government across the UK work together.

Your outstanding efforts working as a team with the Scottish and UK governments delivered one of the fasted vaccine roll-outs in the world. That saved lives and has enabled the UK to be first major economy to reopen fully and return to a greater degree of normality.

I believe if we work as partners and colleagues in the months and years ahead then the big challenges of our times can be met and mastered.

The UK government and the Department for Levelling-Up is at your service.

So I hope together we do all we can, to serve the people of Scotland who have put their faith and trust in us.

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    Michael Gove’s speech to the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities Conference 2022

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