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Voices of Scotland Council cuts: enough is enough

If the regime of cuts to council budgets continues, we can expect more and more people to refuse to implement them, writes GORDON MUNRO

THE “dented shield” is broken, unable to protect — and all that’s left for Scotland’s councils is to set the terms of surrender. Since 2013/14 when police and fire were removed from local council scrutiny and control, Audit Scotland point out that council budgets have reduced by 7.6 per cent in real terms.

But for most councils it’s worse than that. From 2013/14 to 2018/19 core revenue funding for Fife was cut by 7.8 per cent; North Lanarkshire 10.0 per cent; Glasgow 10.5 per cent and Edinburgh 11.4 per cent.

This is one of many reasons why Labour councillors such as Mary Lockhart supported by Independent Linda Holt (Fife), Angela Feeney (North Lanarkshire), Matt Kerr (Glasgow) and myself took the difficult decision to go against the whip in support of our communities, our councils and — for those of us who are Labour councillors — to support party policy against austerity by saying “enough is enough.”

Each of us has taken that decision individually and carried it out in different ways and will be subject to party discipline but any decision taken will pale in comparison to the impact of the cuts in our councils which will be felt in every ward.

The Budgets in 2020/21 in each council will be cut. For Fife it will be £15.4m, North Lanarkshire £31m, Edinburgh £35m and Glasgow £51m — a whopping £132.4m from those councils alone in one year.

Further cuts can be expected in future years and indeed Audit Scotland warn councils in their report that the dynamic of reducing budgets, increased demand for services along with delivery of an increasingly complex range of national priorities (up from 6.2 per cent in 2018/19 to 12.1 per cent of council budgets) which is why they advise that councils need to “think differently about how they fund and deliver services.” This is clear indication that unless real change is made in how councils are financed, then the cuts will continue.

One promised change made by the Scottish government was replacing council tax. It was made in 2007 and is yet to happen. There was even a joint Commission Report between the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla) and the Scottish government in 2015 — “Just Change” — which laid out several possibilities.

In its conclusions it recommended joint work — and there was an expectation that the parliament elected in 2016 would take forward the report. This is also yet to happen. Only Holyrood can make this change, but it is clear that without pressure from within and outside of Parliament, that it will not happen. There is work here for citizens, councillors in councils and via Cosla, trade unions for their members and their communities to bring this pressure so that change is implemented.

But that is not enough. The increasingly centralist control of local government needs to be tackled too. The sharp increase, nearly doubling, of councils being asked to deliver central government priorities cannot continue either.

The Holyrood creation of Integrated Joint Boards (IJBs) has created real financial headaches for all Scottish councils with a total funding gap of £208m despite council contributions increasing from £2.4bn to £2.5bn. Audit Scotland warn in their report that without deficit funding from partners then 19 IJBs would have recorded a deficit. They also warn that councils need to budget for the demographic trend increase in over-65s which means a squeeze on council health and social care budgets as well as council contributions to IJBs.

This is about where and who is best placed to deploy resources. Joint work on this between the Scottish government and Cosla needs to include trade union input along with clear role and responsibility lines to ensure that council and government policies are delivered.

It will require a mature approach to tackle the above — and the evidence to date is not good. The last panto of the season has just finished in Holyrood where the Scottish government say “this is our offer” — which never comes anywhere near the Cosla demand — and the Greens pretend not to play, but in the end do and get a bag of money that they portray as a real gain.

It’s nothing of the sort. Cosla point out that it’s a real-terms cut of £205m never mind the additional 2 per cent needed for inflationary pressures plus a further 3 per cent for restoration of previous cuts. The money is there as shown by the Audit Scotland report on the Scottish government’s consolidated accounts for 2018/19, which show an underspend of £508m.

But it’s not the money that is the real issue here it’s the political will to make the change in local government finance that councils need and that brings councils into the 21st century; change that makes the grant allocation method more open and transparent as requested by Audit Scotland.

It’s the relaxing of the grip that central government has on local government so that councils can make their own decisions on raising funds — for example to cope with the demands of the tourist industry and/or the ability to rein in property speculators and private landlords so that a range of options can be taken rather than limiting councils to cuts plus increased charges to citizens.

Without real and substantive change in council funding, both fiscal and legislative, then the only budget option for councils will be more cuts, less services, less workers. If that is the case then I do expect to see an increase in those, from all parties and none, who then say “I cannot support this council’s budget.” We have work to do if we want the change our communities and their councils need.

Gordon Munro is a Labour councillor for Leith ward, Edinburgh.

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