Leaders: Whatever the distraction, council debts must be paid | Start by doing what is necessary

Pope Francis waves to the crowd from the central balcony of St Peter's Basilica at the Vatican. Picture: AP
Pope Francis waves to the crowd from the central balcony of St Peter's Basilica at the Vatican. Picture: AP
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THE fact that Scottish councils have the ability to run up debts amounting to billions of pounds will come as a surprise to most people. But indeed they do, and according to a report today from the Accounts Commission, our councils have become rather too fond of doing so.

The commission reports that the aggregate debt of all Scottish councils is an eye-watering £12.9 billion, and rising. This, says today’s report, is unsustainable. This newspaper agrees. These are debts that need to be serviced and, ultimately, repaid. How and when that is going to happen is worryingly unclear.

Who is responsible for this building up of debt? The councils will no doubt blame the Scottish Government, which has a deal with local authorities where council tax is frozen in exchange for a set sum of money from central government. This has left many councils short of cash with which to fund essential services. But is running-up debts really the sensible response? And how straight are councils being with their electors about this financial manoeuvring?

A common complaint from council leaders in recent years has been that politics in Scotland is becoming over-centralised, with a far greater concentration of power in the Scottish Government than was the case in the past.

They have a point – although many of the recent centralisations, for example in the creation of single national police and fire services, have much to commend them.

The word “devolution” is usually used in the context of transferring power from Westminster to Holyrood, but there is a growing body of opinion – most recently joined by Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont – where the argument is for devolution from Holyrood down to local authorities, and indeed from them tocommunities.

Such calls for more devolution would perhaps have a greater chance of being listened to if council leaders and officials had been keeping a more careful check on the council finances. Running-up such a high level of debt cannot realistically be taken as a sign that councillors are behaving with prudence.

Today’s report from the Accounts Commission does raise wider questions about the finances of our local authorities. For example, how aware was the Scottish Government of such a build-up of debt? And what part did this play in the operation of what is often referred to as the “historic concordat” between the Scottish Government and councils umbrella body, Cosla? Have ministers and council leaders colluded to allow the country’s local authorities to sink into the red, in order to protect an increasingly precarious deal that allows the SNP to meet its promise of a council tax freeze? The concordat has not come under much scrutiny of late. Perhaps this report is a good reason to revisit it, with a sceptical eye and some searching questions.

Start by doing what is necessary

One of the first acts of Pope Francis was to ask the crowd in St Peter’s Square to fall silent and pray to God for him. It was a gesture which struck an appropriate note of humility. For the successor to Saint Peter does not have his troubles to seek as the leader of more than one billion Roman Catholics.

The choice of the conclave, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, from Argentina, was a surprise to many observers who speculated that the Italian curia might have reasserted its traditional control over the papacy or that there might have been a radical move in choosing a pope from Africa.

What direction the new pope will lead the church is hard to say, but his age, 76, suggests that he is – perhaps – a stop-gap choice of his fellow princes of the church, as cardinals are still known.

What we can be sure of is that, as a Jesuit, he will bring intellectual rigour to the role of spiritual leadership of the church.

As the first pope from South America, though his parents were Italian, he may also bring a fresher approach to the papacy, including taking a stronger control of the Vatican bureaucracy which has been viewed by some critics as remote and controlling.

What is unlikely, however, is that Pope Francis will be particularly liberal in terms of social teaching.

He led the opposition to gay marriage in Argentina, for example.

Given the debates over the church’s attitude to such matters that may be disappointing, if not surprising.

However, from his initial words, we heard a humble man aware of the great burden of leadership that now rests upon his shoulders.

He will need the prayers of his people in the years ahead.