Brian Wilson: Poor, kids and pensioners bear brunt of SNP austerity

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Hurrah! We are each going to be £4,100 a year better off – I love the precision – by being more like New Zealand or maybe Finland. The “Arc of Prosperity” on which we were previously invited to stake our future is so last decade.

The protracted spin operation for Andrew Wilson’s much-doctored Epistle to the Sceptical reminded me of the matchless injunction from Richard Nixon’s Press Secretary, Ronald Ziegler: “All previous statements are inoperative.” Alas, it did not improve the believability of what followed.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon plans to restart the debate about Scottish independence. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon plans to restart the debate about Scottish independence. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

If nothing else, the ‘Grope for Credibility Commission’ is a masterclass in using the hypothetical to divert attention from the actual. So let me invite consideration of another document published this week which is of infinitely more relevance to the lives of the non-chattering classes.

It will not be the subject of breathless broadcasts or portentous interviews because reality is so mundane when viewed through the omniscient prism of The Constitution. Why would the commentariat care about the brutal treatment of council services by the same geniuses who are to reward us with £4,100 a head, if only ...?

The report I refer to has been produced by the Scottish Parliament’s Information Centre (SPICe) in response to an important question which has long demanded a definitive answer. How has the Scottish Government treated local authority finances relative to changes in its own budget in recent years?

That is the gulf for which nobody but current Scottish Government ministers is responsible. It cannot be obfuscated by talk of “Westminster austerity” which is the normal tactic to blur the lines. The gulf is solely the product of policy priorities established in St Andrew’s House and nowhere else.

Scottish Government cuts to council budgets have meant some children no longer get free swimming lessons

Scottish Government cuts to council budgets have meant some children no longer get free swimming lessons

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The answer is pretty devastating. The Scottish Parliament researchers have taken 2013-14 as their baseline because that was the point when police and fire services were separated from council budgets. If the timeframe was longer, treatment of councils would appear even worse – the Accounts Commission recently said a ten per cent cut since 2010 – but let’s stick with SPICe.

In real terms, the research confirms, the local government revenue settlement decreased at a far faster rate (minus 7.1 per cent) than the Scottish Government’s (minus 1.3 per cent). This means that councils have suffered £744.7 million of cuts in revenue – £200 million more than the entire reduction in the Scottish Government’s own budget. Far from protecting local services from the icy blast, the Nationalists have made them their whipping boy.

If cuts had been passed on at the same rate as alleged “Tory austerity” towards Holyrood, Scottish local authorities would have been £556 million better off. So what does that tell us about “Nationalist austerity” towards Scotland’s beleaguered local authorities? It is a question from which there should now be no hiding place.

It also poses a direct challenge to the truthfulness of Derek Mackay, the Scottish finance minister. When the Accounts Commission reported, Mr Mackay said that cuts to local councils “mirrored the reduction in Scottish budgets from Westminster”. The SPICe research is utterly incompatible with that assertion. Will there be any calling to account? Probably not, for this is Scotland.

Of course, every penny of the short-changing translates into cuts in services, increases in charges and tens of thousands of decent jobs which no longer exist. Education is supposed to be Ms Sturgeon’s highest priority but how does that square with the treatment of local councils who spend most of their budgets on education?

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The inevitable result (as the Accounts Commission pointed out) is 4,000 fewer teachers and huge losses of support staff, including a 13 per cent reduction in those who provide additional support for children with special needs. Very little of this would have happened if the Scottish Government had merely passed on the same (modest) level of cuts to councils as it was itself subject to. That is the crucial point and it is now laid bare.

The cruelty of these cuts is even more offensive when translated into individual council areas. As it happens, the one in which I live – the Western Isles – has been hit hardest of all. Over the past five years, real-terms local government funding has reduced by £504 per head of population – this is an area with the lowest earnings, the highest fuel poverty levels and the most age-imbalanced population in Scotland.

It is a constituency represented by an SNP MSP from whom never a word is heard on anything remotely inconvenient to his cause. He should now be called to account for the dubious accolade of representing the council area which has suffered most harshly at the hands of the administration of which he is a member – every missing classroom assistant, overworked home help and pot-hole a monument to his silence.

For all the prating about social justice, the council with the highest levels of deprivation and lowest life expectancy in Scotland, Glasgow, has £233 per head of population less to spend on services than it did, even in 2013-14. An SNP council has now been landed with this particular baby and has resorted to increasing nursery charges by 50 per cent and taking away free swimming from kids and pensioners. Do they do that in New Zealand?

It has been hugely in the Scottish Government’s interests to hide behind the skirts of “Tory austerity” but the SPICe report exposes the inadequacy of that alibi, as far as treatment of local councils is concerned. If Ms Sturgeon or Mr MacKay had said “we have better things to spend our money on”, then fair enough – at least there could be a debate. It is the pretence of “mirroring” Westminster cuts that creates not only injustice but also dishonesty.

At the heart of this issue lies their deep disdain for “localism” within Scotland. Sucking money away from councils in order to fund centralised priorities is integral to a mentality summed up by the Nationalist luminary who declared: “Scotland is our localism.” Tell that to the poor, the children and the pensioners as they bear the brunt of that SNP funding gulf.