Thank you, John [Mackay, Chair of the conference]. I also want to congratulate Sally [Loudon] on her first conference as Chief Executive.
It's fantastic to see another woman getting appointed to a prominent position – but it's not particularly surprising to see it in this particular setting. I warmly welcome the work that COSLA has done on gender equality in recent years – almost half of your chief executives are female, and you have agreed to ensure a gender-balanced Executive Board from 2017.
I also welcome the fact that you are working with all political parties to promote equal representation among elected councillors. That's an area where there is still lots to be done – something I'm acutely aware of, as a party leader – and it's an issue where COSLA's continued efforts are really important and very welcome. I hope that at next year's conference, after the 2017 elections, it will be possible to look back on further progress.
I want to begin my remarks today by highlighting something which happened last Saturday. On 1 October, as all of you know, all adult social care workers became eligible to receive the living wage. Now I'm well aware that this has been a significant undertaking. I want to thank all of you for the work you are doing. Contracts have had to be varied, and in some instances re-tendered. That can be a complex exercise. And in some cases there are some implementation issues still being addressed.
But it's a policy which – as all of us agree – is absolutely the right thing to do. It has increased, in some cases, care workers' wages by a seventh. And it's something which could only ever be delivered by national and local government working together. I have started with that because I think it is a good illustration of how we can act in partnership to deliver better conditions for employees, as well as better services for communities.
And it's one of many examples we can look back on in the last year. I can't go through all of them today, but I do want to highlight three more.
The first is the outline city region deals which have been agreed for Aberdeen and Inverness. Those deals should make a big difference to local communities. If you take the Aberdeen deal, for example, it aims to help the oil and gas industry work together to get the most from our existing reserves.
The deal will also help to diversify the economy, by supporting life sciences and pharmaceuticals sectors. That's obviously hugely beneficial for the region's long term economic future. And over and above the city deal, the Scottish Government is investing in sustainable housing, and better transport links.
Now the process of agreeing the Aberdeen deal – and the Inverness deal – required local authorities to work together with both the Scottish and UK governments and with other local partners. It's a product of joint working, which will support jobs, boost businesses and improve local communities. And so we aim to develop more deals in the future – with our city regions and beyond cities too.
The next example of good joint working is around Brexit, where COSLA and the Scottish government share the same disappointment at the EU referendum result, but also the same determination to secure the least worst possible outcome for Scotland.
COSLA has had very productive discussions with [Minister for UK Negotiations on Scotland's Place in Europe] Mike Russell and [Minister for International Development and Europe] Alasdair Allan – and as a result, we are gathering information on the impact of Brexit on local authorities.
The fallout from the EU referendum is of paramount importance to Scotland. Now events in Birmingham this week show how difficult it is going to be to influence the UK government towards a soft exit, and the challenges that we face in maintaining membership of the single market. So the support of partners from across Scotland is vital. It's an area where we value your support, and will continue to work with you.
And the final example from the last year that I want to raise is the Syrian Resettlement Scheme.
I'm really proud of the fact that almost a third of the refugees from Syria admitted to the UK so far have settled here in Scotland. We have provided a safe and welcoming home for 1,000 refugees so far.
We still have more to do in the months and years ahead. People are still fleeing the continued violence in Syria and other countries – so we will take in more refugees. And there are particular areas where we need to take additional steps. For example, all of us have been moved by the plight of child refugees. It is essential that we do everything we can to reunite them with their families.
That's an issue which the Scottish Government has been discussing with COSLA. We have agreed that we will jointly convene a roundtable to consider what more we can do to help these children, so that they can get back into education, rebuild their lives and fulfil their potential.
The resettlement scheme so far has been a model of joint working between central government, local authorities, partner organisations and local communities. I am grateful to all local authorities for everything you have done. And I can guarantee that we will continue to work with you in the future, to ensure that the scheme continues to be a success.
All of those examples demonstrate a fundamental truth about the relationship between the Scottish government and local government. We share the same ambitions – for stronger communities, a fairer society, a thriving economy.
Yes, we have our differences – we shouldn't seek to ignore that. The current discussions on council tax and the education attainment fund, for example, demonstrate that. But these differences often tend to be about means not objectives, and let us not forget that far more unites us than divides us.
For that reason, the Scottish Government knows that COSLA is – and always will be – an essential and equal partner in creating a fairer and more prosperous country that we want to see. We will always be committed to working together with local authorities.
As part of that, you will of course be key partners in our work on community empowerment. We have said, and I said when I became First Minister, that we needed to find new ways of harnessing the democratic energy which was so evident in the independence referendum campaign – not just in the great constitutional questions of our time, but also in the day to day decisions made by and for communities across the country.
That's what we seek to achieve. Last year's Community Empowerment Act makes it easier for community bodies to buy community land and assets. Our Scottish Land Fund supports the purchase of community land. Of course we have promised to consult on how communities can benefit from the devolution of the management of Crown Estate assets to Scotland.
And in the coming year, we are introducing an Islands Bill. I know that Angus [Campbell, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar] may well have spoken about that already. It represents a milestone in central government's relationship with our island communities – and is the outcome of three years of discussion and consultation.
We will also work closely with you on the scope and remit of the forthcoming local government review. And we have made clear our intention to introduce a Local Government Bill during this parliament. Elements of that will build on some of the work that is already going on – for example through the Community Choices fund – to extend community budgeting.
In all of this, we are working with you as local government to further decentralise budgets and powers. We want Scotland to be a country where community ownership is both desirable and viable, and where community-led action is celebrated. Local government and central government must work together to achieve that.
In achieving that, we will help to create fairer, more prosperous and more empowered communities.
I began this speech by congratulating Sally on her new appointment. I want to end by paying tribute to all of the elected councillors here today and indeed all those across the country who are not here.
This is the last annual conference before the local government elections next May. Some of you will step down – either voluntarily or involuntarily – and many of you will return to serve your communities again. Regardless of what you choose – or what is chosen for you! – I want to thank all of you for your service.
Putting yourself up for election, and then serving all of the members of your local community, is hard work. It's also a vital public service.
Local government is essential to the health, wellbeing and prosperity of every community in Scotland. The integrity, expertise and dedication of our elected representatives matters hugely. And so all of you should be proud of your term of office.
I alluded earlier to the fact that relations between national and local government aren't always straightforward – that's inevitable. We should be honest and open about the disagreements we have. But let me say very clearly to you as First Minister: I know that you are indispensable partners; we value highly the work that you do; and we will continue to work with you in the months and years ahead. So I hope you enjoy the rest of the conference and I wish each and every one of you, all the best for the future.
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