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Voices of Scotland Cuts to councils are cuts to communities

People desperately need a return to the best traditions of central government working in partnership with local authorities to provide much-valued services, says BILL SHIELDS

THERE is a longstanding and admirable tradition in Scotland and across Britain of central government working with and relying on local authorities to create and deliver public services. 

In 1917, many working-class families were living in squalor in damp, overcrowded private-sector rented housing. 

These conditions stunted children’s growth and development. A Royal Commission report on housing in Scotland published that year concluded that “commercial enterprise has failed.” 

I am an elected member on North Lanarkshire Council representing a ward in the town of Coatbridge. In that period, Coatbridge was particularly affected by the squalor with 71 per cent of the town’s population living in housing with more than two people per room. 

The Royal Commission report declared that “the state itself, through the local authorities, is alone in a position to assume responsibility.” 

Local authorities had to be enabled “to undertake themselves — with financial assistance from the state — the necessary building schemes.” 

Substantial programmes of council housebuilding began, really taking off under the 1945 Labour government, and these continued up until the late 1970s before the Thatcher downturn.

Another example is the old Glasgow Corporation. Following a deadly cholera epidemic in 1847-48, Glasgow made plans for a public supply of clean water. 

An Act of Parliament in 1855 allowed Glasgow to engineer an impressive scheme drawing water to the city’s people from Loch Katrine, saving future generations from cholera. 

In more modern times, in 1994, Strathclyde Regional Council followed this up with a referendum in which 97 per cent of voters opposed the Conservative government’s plans to take water in Scotland out of public control as had already happened in England and Wales. This led to the plans being dropped. 

It is no exaggeration, therefore, to say that modern civilisation as we know it would not exist without the role of local authorities in providing public services. 

Today, North Lanarkshire Council, with a council housing stock of 36,834, is the largest local authority landlord in Scotland. 

The council has embarked upon an ambitious programme to build 5,000 new homes by 2035. North Lanarkshire Council has also hit the headlines with its bold “Club 365” initiative. 

This aims to combat food poverty by providing meals and fun activities at weekends and holidays for Primary 1 to Primary 7 children who are entitled to free school meals.

Sadly, there is also a longstanding and destructive tradition of central government being resentful of local government’s influence, centralising power and slashing councils’ budgets. 

The Conservatives’ right to buy policy under Margaret Thatcher drastically reduced the stock of social housing across Britain. 

Under devolution in Scotland, right to buy has been curbed and new council housing can now be built; however, it will take many years to undo the damage. 

Strathclyde Regional Council, not long after its water victory, suffered the same fate as Greater London Council and was abolished by the Conservative government in a vindictive local authority reorganisation.

Unfortunately, today’s SNP Scottish government shows its own hostility to local government. 

Last year, the Scottish government attempted to rob local councils of their power of democratic oversight of schools. 

Legislation was to be enacted to create “regional improvement collaboratives” for groups of schools covering more than one local authority. 

These bodies would have reported to the Scottish government, bypassing local democratic scrutiny. Head teachers were to be given more powers to control budgets. 

Many head teachers did not want such powers as they are education not accountancy professionals. 

Thankfully, with little or no support for the plans among the teaching profession and its unions and with opposition from Labour and other parties, the Scottish government was forced to drop the legislation, with collaboratives being set up on a non-statutory basis, with local authorities in the lead. 

There is no greater demonstration of the Scottish government’s disrespect for local authorities than its 2019-20 budget settlement to Scottish councils. 

The Scottish government is subject to disgraceful cuts to its block grant from the Westminster government but it passes on a disproportionately higher share of the cuts to local government. 

Also, it is only prepared to use in a very limited way its own tax-varying powers under devolution to tax the rich more.

North Lanarkshire Council levels with its population about the financial situation we face. From the council’s website, you can see that, since 2007, over £230 million has been taken from our core budget. 

The Scottish government’s budget, taken together with inflation pressures, nationally agreed pay awards and cost pressures caused by an increasingly older population means that North Lanarkshire Council has to save about £29.8m this year if we are to meet our legal obligation to set a balanced budget. 

As parts of the council’s funds are ring-fenced by the Scottish government for its policies on areas such as education and health and social care, the savings have to come from core services such as roads, waste, local facilities and public protection.

No matter how anyone tries to interpret the figures, this is the harsh financial reality: North Lanarkshire Council is being forced by the Scottish government to make £29.8m of cuts. 

Cuts to councils are cuts to communities and however much we try to mitigate the cuts and reconfigure services, communities will suffer.

Councils up and down Scotland are faced with similar horrifying cuts, including SNP-led councils. Despite this, SNP MSPs and local councillors fail to even admit there is a problem. 

Like a pre-programmed hive obeying the queen bee, SNP MSPs and councillors hum the party line that councils have been given an “enhanced package” empowering them with additional funding.

It has never been clearer that people desperately need a return to the best traditions of central government working in partnership with local authorities to provide the public services we all rely on. 

And it has never been clearer that the best way to achieve this is to elect a Westminster Labour government under Jeremy Corbyn and a Scottish Labour government under Richard Leonard and Labour local councils.

Bill Shields is a founder member of Campaign for Socialism, a Scottish CND member and a Labour councillor with North Lanarkshire Council.

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