Andrew Burns blasts John Swinney over council funding

Andrew Burns says he's got a shotgun to his head over council funding. File picture: supplied
Andrew Burns says he's got a shotgun to his head over council funding. File picture: supplied
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CITY leader Andrew Burns has accused Finance Secretary John Swinney of holding “a shotgun at my head” over council funding.

In the latest sign of an escalating row, he said a threat to claw back money unless councils deliver a local tax freeze was a “democratic disgrace”.

And he warned the relationship between ministers and local authorities, such as Edinburgh, was “close to broken”.

The comments came after John Swinney said in a letter to the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla) that any council failing to approve a tax and teacher numbers freeze, and new social care plans, would see its share of combined cash to deliver the policies cut.

Cllr Burns – who also set out his concerns in a blog post – said this would have resulted in Edinburgh losing £33 million.

The Labour member for Fountainbridge and Craiglockhart said: “We’ve set our budget – I don’t want to raise council tax and I’m quite happy to have the points around teacher numbers as an aspiration. I’m also quite happy to have the allocation of monies for integrated care.

“But what the letter says is that any council that does not do these things will have its money taken away. So it’s not just the £7m that we would lose if we did not freeze the council tax. There’s the explicit threat if we don’t deliver on the teacher ratios then Edinburgh would lose another £6m. And an explicit threat if we don’t do what it says in the integrated care element, then we would lose £20m.

“Basically, I’ve got a shotgun at my head and I’m being told, ‘do this or we’re cutting your budget’.

“What would the Scottish Government’s response and attitude be if Westminster did that to them? There would be absolute outrage. It’s a disgrace – a democratic disgrace. The relationship [between ministers and councils] is broken, or it’s getting close to it.”

SNP councillor Sandy Howat, Edinburgh’s deputy leader, said there was “frustration” at local authorities’ lack of “autonomy”.

But he distanced himself from the tone of Cllr Burns’ criticism. “The council’s Labour and SNP groups agreed the council tax freeze was the best way to go, and I welcome the extra investment in the health integration joint board,” he said.

“We would like to have more flexibility and control over how we raise revenue. It’s a debate that needs to happen quickly. The relationship between the government and councils desperately needs to be changed.”

Ministers have insisted that council funding here compares well to the situation in England.

A spokeswoman said: “The Deputy First Minister has now written to council leaders with full details of the offer, and having listened to the issues raised by Cosla, has responded positively by providing more time for councils to consider by February 9.”