Will this week’s report by the Accounts Commission on the dire state of Scottish council finances finally act as a wake-up call to those who have remained somnolent for so long?
It remains a source of wonderment that there has been so little outcry in response to a sustained assault, far beyond anything suffered by the Scottish Government’s own budget and massively damaging to services on which the less well-off disproportionately depend. On top of that, 35,000 decently paid council jobs have disappeared.
Most of “civic Scotland” has shown a resolute lack of interest in being awoken. Organisations which once existed to stand up for Scottish workers and public services now operate as if wholly owned subsidiaries of the Scottish Government, acutely aware – and regularly reminded – of where their funding comes from. The tentacles of dependency run deep.
So it is left to the Accounts Commission to say what trade unions should have been on the streets protesting about years ago – that councils have suffered a near ten per cent real terms cut in budgets since 2010; that services all over Scotland are crumbling under the strain and that “public satisfaction is falling” as evidence manifests itself in everything from potholes to classroom sizes, with worse to come.
The feeble response of the Scottish Finance Minister, Derek Mackay, is that cuts to councils have “mirrored the reduction in Scottish budgets from Westminster”. According to every credible third party source, this is simply untrue. Indeed, I can find no trace of even the Scottish Government claiming it has suffered a ten per cent cut since 2010. It hasn’t.
But even if it had, does that mean simply passing the full blast of cuts to councils? Whatever happened to the language of priorities or choices allowed by devolution? Everyone knows the best way of defending the less well off is by maintaining public services. Even if the Tories cut Holyrood by ten per cent (which they didn’t), there is no divine law which says this must be “mirrored” in the SNP’s treatment of councils – much less gone far beyond. Nowhere is the hypocrisy more apparent than in education. In endless classroom photo opportunities, where hard questions are never asked, we are told how closing attainment gaps is the highest priority of the Scottish Government. Yet listen to what the Audit Commission has to say on the subject: “There is a risk that reduced spending in education is affecting pupils’ learning experience and staff morale.”
There are 4,000 fewer teachers than at the start of the decade, 11 per cent fewer support staff, 30 per cent fewer music instructors and, particularly shamefully, 13 per cent fewer additional-support-needs staff despite a growing number of youngsters who need such help.
The Accounts Commission warns that local authorities are eating into reserves at an unsustainable rate, just to keep the show on the road. “Continuing to use reserves at the current rate is not an option for some councils as they would run out within two or three years … A council can only use reserves once, they are not a way to sustain services.” But that, of course, is not the Scottish Government’s problem – yet.
I recommend that this devastating report should be read in conjunction with two others, both from sources much more reputable than Mr Mackay’s script-writers. Last year, the Fraser of Allander Institute came closest to putting a definitive figure on how, in real terms, the Scottish Government budget has changed over the years.
They concluded that the real terms cut since 2010-11 was 3.8 per cent but added it was “debatable” if that should be taken as the appropriate comparator since it was the highwater mark in Scottish Government spending after years of increases. In real terms, they said, the 2017-18 budget was on a par with 2007-08. By that measure, local government should be receiving the same settlement as a decade ago, rather than heading for penury.
The Fraser of Allander report added: “The information in the (Scottish Government) budget isn’t particularly easy to understand. The selective data that the government presents often appears designed to support their arguments rather than inform debate.” That may be why they have got away with it until now but obfuscation and propaganda do not fix potholes, empty bins or educate children. Scotland is coming face to face with these realities.
Another piece of research that provides essential background is Professor Jim Gallagher’s report last autumn for Nuffield College. His task was to identify the quantum of extra public spending in Scotland and also what it is spent on. His first conclusion was that the “Barnett differential” has been maintained in its entirety so that 25 per cent more per head is spent on devolved services in Scotland than on the same services in England.
So where does the money go? Gallagher found that the two biggest “losers” as a result of policy choices made by the Scottish Government are hospitals and schools. If increased NHS spending in Scotland had been proportionate to overall increases in devolved spending and if all NHS-generated “Barnett consequentials” had gone to the NHS in Scotland, it would now be a billion pounds a year better off.
Gallagher concluded that the two areas of expenditure which have benefited disproportionately are law and order (ie Police Scotland) and tertiary education – in other words the “no tuition fees” policy. In marked contrast, per capita expenditure on school education is no more than in England – in spite of the fact there is 25 per cent more overall being spent on services.
Devolution is about making different choices but it is essential that these choices are identifiable. I believe that, if consulted, the two highest priorities of Scottish voters would be to provide decent funding for council services, particularly schools, and to put every available penny into the NHS.
The charge against the SNP is that their priorities have been very different. On local government, the Audit Commission has provided the weapons necessary to prosecute that case. The question now is who will choose to use them. Denial can no longer close down debate.