This is no time for passivity in local government. We need to reawaken a spirit of radical democracy and strong leadership, explains DAVE WATSON
THESE are tough times for local government in Scotland as austerity is dumped on councils and services are centralised. But councils all too often act like passive administrators rather than the strong local democratic voice they should be.
The local government budget is the only major Scottish government budget to suffer a real-terms cut while being stretched by increased service demand.
The regressive council tax freeze has now cost £2.5 billion, largely a benefit for wealthy householders at the expense of services. To compensate, councils are increasing charges and it is those on the lowest incomes who suffer most.
The small business bonus scheme has now cost over £800 million, with no evidence that it has led to increased economic investment or jobs growth. Freezing taxes is not the route to reducing poverty and inequality.
Budget cuts mean that four out of every five of the jobs cut in the Scottish public sector are from local government. Every month Unison Scotland publishes a service-specific survey that shows how these cuts affect services and the workers trying to deliver them.
We also can’t go on applying sticking plaster solutions to the problems with local taxation.
The new cross-party commission will hopefully develop a long-term solution.
Politicians should take comfort from the recent Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla) poll that showed the public understands that good services cost money and the council tax freeze must eventually thaw.
While local government is devolved to Scotland, this election still matters to council services. Tory spending plans will mean a further £2bn of cuts and 30,000 more job losses in Scotland, most of which are likely to fall on councils.
The SNP’s full fiscal autonomy demands would result in a £7.6bn spending gap. Even allowing for optimistic borrowing assumptions, that is a £3.8bn budget cut and around 50,000 job losses. Labour could end austerity next year, but the demands of appearing fiscally prudent in England blunt its anti-austerity message in Scotland.
Local government’s problems are not just limited to finance. There has been a creeping centralisation of services and Scottish ministers take greater powers of control in almost every piece of legislation. The commission on strengthening local democracy identified a link between the absence of strong local democracy and the prevalence of inequalities.
It is communities that empower governments at all levels, not governments that empower people.
So, if Con-Dem austerity is the root of the problem, exacerbated by poor Scottish government choices, what about councils themselves?
Councillors are often not acting as strong local voices. They are more likely to trumpet how they have papered over the cracks than stand up for local services. The radical leadership that local government provided in the Thatcher years is largely absent today. Even Cosla has split over who gets what crumbs from the diminishing cake.
Councils should be producing needs-based budgets, using procurement to promote fair employment standards, reinventing local economies and using pension funds to invest in housing, energy generation and local industry. Devolution shouldn’t end at Holyrood. We need double devolution to strong democratically accountable councils. However, that also requires political leadership at national and local level — nothing short of a renaissance for local democracy.
Dave Watson is the head of bargaining and campaigns at Unison Scotland.