War of words over cuts as councils set budgets

Local authorities have voiced their displeasure with John Swinney for insisting teachers' numbers do not drop. Picture: Alex Hewitt
Local authorities have voiced their displeasure with John Swinney for insisting teachers' numbers do not drop. Picture: Alex Hewitt
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MORE than half of Scotland’s councils have set their spending plans for the year ahead, as authorities, unions and the SNP government were locked in a bitter row over funding for front-line services.

Last night, the head of councils body Cosla told The Scotsman that the authorities had been forced to take “really, really tough decisions”, as annual budgets were voted through.

However, finance secretary John Swinney warned councils they would have to “live within the constrained resources” of the public sector, after he had threatened to cut the funding of authorities that failed to give a clear commitment to protect teacher numbers.

Unions called for the end of the Nationalist government’s flagship policy of a council tax freeze, which they claimed was starving authorities of cash for front-line services.

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There were also protests against £22 million worth of cuts in Edinburgh, as the council became one of 13 of Scotland’s 32 authorities to pass its budget yesterday.

Alasdair Rankin, Edinburgh’s finance convener, said that the city faced the same “financial challenges as all local authorities”, as councillors approved a total revenue budget of £949m and capital spending of £245m for 2015-16. Councillors in East Renfrewshire, meanwhile, approved £17.4m of savings to be delivered during the next three years, including £6.1m for 2015-16, as the authority’s leader, Jim Fletcher, talked about a “difficult budget process”.

Aberdeenshire Council agreed a package, which an authority spokesman said would “plug a £3.6m gap in the budget through a reduction in budgets, savings and increased charges for some services”.

Another 13 councils have already passed their budgets, with the rest, including Glasgow – Scotland’s biggest authority –due to set their spending plans later this month.

Cosla president David O’Neill said that councils were now ­facing “financial difficulties and extreme budgetary pressures” and a major challenge to ensure the “service user does not ­suffer”.

He said: “It is both fair to say, and blatantly obvious, that this is getting tougher every year and really, really tough decisions are having to be taken by Scotland’s councils.”

However, Mr Swinney, hitting back at Cosla, said: “I think it’s important at all stages that local as well as national government engages closely with the discussion and the debate about priorities in every locality in the country.”

Scottish Trades Union Congress deputy general secretary Dave Moxham, calling for an end to the council tax freeze, said: “It seems to us that there is almost a conspiracy of silence about the absolute impact that these cuts are having on ­individuals.”

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