Ian Murray: I fear another year of gloom for councils
'Tis the season to be jolly! Unless, that is, you work in local government. Once again, the Scottish Government are poised to slash the funds going to local services. The result: services thousands of people across Edinburgh rely on '“ including children, the elderly, and some of our most vulnerable citizens '“ will once again be hit hard.
That is why all eyes are trained on the SNP Government’s Draft Budget, due to be unveiled in the Scottish Parliament by Finance Minister Derek McKay. If our worst fears are realised, it will spell another year of gloom for local authorities. They will have to do much more with less, and make difficult decisions on the funding of vital services, such as our roads, schools and hospitals. With an ever shrinking budget, the axe will have to fall somewhere. Compounding the problem are policy diktats from the Scottish Government that must be delivered by councils shorn of any new funding.
In the ten years the SNP have been in power, local authority budgets have been ransacked, and over 27,000 jobs have been lost, putting immense pressure on services and staff. Last year, the local government budget was cut by £500 million in real terms. This year, the respected Fraser of Allander Institute at Strathclyde University has speculated that figure could rise to £700m. As a result, the Accounts Commission, the Scottish public spending watchdog, has forecast that local authorities across Scotland face a funding gap of £500m by 2019. Rather than having to make difficult and unpopular choices, the SNP Government have relinquished responsibility entirely. In doing so, they have turned the Scottish Parliament into a conveyor belt to pass on Tory cuts to the people of Scotland. In terms of local government they have packed up cuts, doubled them, and passed them straight on to councils.
The impact of this can be seen across a range of services, from schools to social care for the elderly. There is no more important investment we can make than in the education of our young people; and no greater mark of a civilised society than how treats its elderly and vulnerable citizens. For all their posturing and pretences, under the SNP, educational standards have drastically declined – as evidenced by the recent poor performance in the international PISA statistics, and the Scottish Government’s own figures on performance in our schools – and there are 4000 fewer teachers in Scotland’s schools. Shamefully, the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that the impact of all this is greatest on pupils from poorer backgrounds.
Meanwhile, social care visits are set to a 15-minute stopwatch and waiting times for assessments and care packages are steadily increasing, causing delayed discharges from hospitals to rocket.
And the SNP’s solution? Allow councils to increase council tax, grab the money raised by Edinburgh tax-payers and give it to other places in Scotland. Demolishing local democracy, strangling council funding, and making you pay for the SNP’s failed policies.
This cannot continue, and that is why Labour will propose amendments to the Scottish budget, to use the new powers of the Scottish Parliament to stop these deleterious and damaging cuts to local services and communities. By the SNP’s response shall we judge them.
Last week, Scottish Labour called for a new Act of Union to modernise the relationship between the nations and regions within the framework of maintaining the UK. The evidence from the last ten years shows beyond doubt that we also need to radically renew the relationship between central and local government within Scotland, enhancing the role of councils in Scotland and devolving more power and money from Holyrood to our communities is essential.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all Evening News Readers
Ian Murry is Labour MP for Edinburgh South