HOWEVER earnestly the Scottish Government insists it has made ample provision for council spending, it will never collect a bouquet from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.
David O’Neill, its president, says the council tax freeze in Scotland is not sustainable and an overhaul is needed. He warns that new charges may have to be looked at to plug gaps and has launched a commission to examine the role of local government in Scotland. It is far from the first time that Cosla has warned on the council tax, and it will not be the last as it sets out its stall ahead of the independence referendum next year.
Many will consider it has little to complain about. The Scottish Government budget set out last month provided a “total baseline package” of resource and capital funding of £10,531 million to support local authority services. Local government’s share of the overall Scottish budget remains largely static from 2013-14 to 2015-16. Indeed, the next financial year should see a small real-terms increase. And while the figures out to 2015-16 show a 1.1 per cent real- terms reduction, it is a shortfall that could – and should – be covered through a modicum of economies, delivery reform and efficiency savings – words, however, that barely resonate in the plush designer interiors of the Cosla head office. Everyone has had to do it. Why should local councils be exempt?
The figure of £10,531m does not include council tax but does include, of course, income from business rates. This is set to rise over the period to 2015-16 from £2,435m to £2,883m, an increase of £448m or 18 per cent. If hands are to be wrung, it is surely those in the hard-pressed business sector, having to fork out ever more money whatever the state of the economy.
However, local authorities are as much in “the squeezed middle” as many people now find themselves. They are charged by central government to take on extra duties and responsibilities while the full costs of these are not so widely appreciated. An example is housing benefit, which has left local councils having to impose reductions of between 14 per cent and 25 per cent on tenants with between one and two “extra” bedrooms. Councils have now been faced with rises in arrears and non-payment, hand-in-hand with a fourfold rise in requests for discretionary housing payments for those in housing need.
Cosla would be on a stronger footing seeking an inquiry into the extra costs it faces. And who could blame it for wishing the Scottish Government to be as responsive to its needs as the health minister has just been over the commitment to the 1 per cent pay rise award for NHS Scotland staff?
Cosla, however, should not underestimate the importance of the partnership between local and central government to help support recovery and growth. A breakdown of the council tax freeze would undoubtedly deal a blow to household confidence on which our recovery depends.
Run showcases Glasgow’s better side
One of the great social changes of the past 25 years has been the mass popularity of fun running, now major annual events in our great cities. Yesterday was the turn of Glasgow. An estimated 23,000 club, fun and charity runners took part in two events: the half marathon – won by former Olympic and world champion Haile Gebrselassie in a new course record time – and a 10k event.
For too long Glasgow has suffered negative publicity over its poor health record and susceptibility to alcohol and drug abuse. Yesterday’s Great Scottish Run was a showcase for those who have taken action to adopt a healthier lifestyle and set themselves a challenge. It is an inspiring and wholly positive event, both for those who took part and for the city: it shows to the world that there is another and more positive side than that too often portrayed. Many charities will also have benefited from those who raised money by mile-for-mile sponsorship.
The event attracted leading names in the worlds of sport and politics, keen to set an example, and Colin Leslie, The Scotsman’s sports editor, showed that there is more to a newspaperman’s life than imprisonment in front of a PC screen. It is also heartening to report that three Scots finished in the first four of the women’s half marathon.
City of Glasgow officials did well to ensure arrangements for the events across the heart of the city went smoothly. A pity the same could not be said for ScotRail, where services were disrupted by late running engineering work and industrial action by members of the Aslef trade union. They might have won more sympathy had they allowed considerations of the greater good to prevail.