DESPITE all the evidence to the contrary, the Scottish government’s standard response to every story on council cuts states: “In spite of continued UK government real-terms cuts to Scotland’s resource budget, we have treated local government very fairly.”
This isn’t just a bit of political spin; it simply isn't true — as the recent Accounts Commission report sets out clearly. Since 2013-14 council budget allocations have been cut by 6.9 per cent, while the Scottish government’s revenue budget fell by only 1.6 per cent.
Yes, Tory austerity is the root cause of the problem, but the Scottish government has made poor choices as well.
The other clear test of where austerity has been applied is the impact on jobs.
The number of staff working in Scottish councils has fallen to its lowest level since devolution, with 30,000 jobs lost since the financial crash. If local government has been treated “fairly,” why have nine out of 10 austerity job cuts in Scotland been in councils?
Council services are crucial in the fight against poverty and inequality, yet cuts disproportionately hit low-income families who rely most on services.
Councils have done their best to focus cuts on other services, but as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has highlighted, it is the poorest who suffer the most.
The evidence is not just in the hard numbers. Unison Scotland regularly surveys the staff who deliver services in our “Damage” series of reports. They tell us that jobs are cut while demand increases. This leaves workers stressed and demoralised as they attempt to keep basic services going.
Even statutory services are stretched and preventative work has been dropped almost entirely.
This means we are building up problems for future generations and increasing the future cost to the public purse.
For example, even after the Grenfell Tower tragedy, building control staff spend little time inspecting properties while they cope with vacancies and government bureaucracy. The patch-and-mend approach to potholes in our roads has become a metaphor for council services as a whole.
We simply cannot go on like this. Council services may be a long way from ministerial desks in Edinburgh, but they matter to communities.
We need a proper reform of local finance with new powers of discretionary taxation. Government must fully fund their own initiatives and recognise the increasing demands being placed on local services.
Service reform should be based on the principle of subsidiarity — ensuring that decisions are taken at the lowest practical level.
Centralisation rarely delivers better outcomes and the Local Governance Review should give all citizens and workers a meaningful say in local decision-making. The less powerful should have an equal voice in service design.
Councils don’t have to wait for central government either. Instead of being the passive administrators of services, they should become the champions of their communities — campaigning against austerity rather than managing the cuts.
The principles of municipal socialism should be applied through municipal energy, banking, transport and housing. The fragmentation of service delivery and outsourcing should end. As the STUC slogan puts it — “There is a Better Way.”
Democratically elected local government should be at the heart of a new relationship with our communities.
Dave Watson is the head of policy and public affairs at Unison Scotland.
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