Council strikes: SNP's contempt for local government is coming home to roost – Brian Wilson

It was appropriate that the annual GERs economic figures were published in the week which saw rubbish piled high on the streets of Edinburgh. For anyone who can put two and two together, this posed an obvious question.

Why is it that, with Scotland far better funded on a per capita basis, local authorities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have made an offer to their low-paid workers that is up to double the one here?

This leads us in a direction this column has repeatedly sought to illuminate. Though the Scottish Government, for all their moaning, is well funded, they have consistently failed to pass a fair share to local authorities in anything like the same ratio that previously prevailed.

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Over 15 years, local government has been gradually deprived of the ability to maintain services or, as we now see, offer its workforce a proper pay rise when they finally reach the end of their tether. The only thing new is the sound of roosting chickens.

People take part in a trade union pay protest on Buchanan Street, Glasgow, as bin workers walk out in several council areas (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire)
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The truth which too many, particularly in “civic Scotland”, have refused to face up to is that the faux-progressivism of SNP self-image has disguised right-wing policies that would have been called out long ago if they came from more obvious sources. The treatment of councils has been among the most blatant, in plain sight.

As far back as 2013, a Scotsman editorial said of the then Finance Secretary John Swinney: “He has shuffled most of the cuts burden onto Scotland’s local authorities. It is they who will have to do the dirty work in the coming year – closing more schools, shutting more libraries, cutting back on social care services for the elderly and vulnerable, locking the doors of local swimming pools.”

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In 2016, Swinney said a particularly savage cut would have “minimal impact” on services. I wrote then: “If a Tory wearing a blue rosette used the term ‘minimal impact’, he would have been the lead story in every news bulletin, denounced as the minister out of touch with the consequences of his own actions.” And so it has gone on.

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Swinney is still front man for defending the indefensible while Ms Sturgeon traipses from one pointless piece of self-promotion to the next. But maybe, just maybe, reality is catching up. Only the most wilfully obtuse fail to recognise where responsibility currently lies. It isn’t Westminster and it isn’t with local authorities.

The Sturgeon/Swinney strategy has gone badly wrong. If the pay offer now on the table had been made two or three months ago, it might have been accepted. But a game was being played which was to spin out the process until the SNP presented itself as the good fairy, with an extra £140 million of cash, which had been stashed for that purpose.

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This is where the miscalculation came in. During these wasted weeks when low-paid workers were being offered 2.5 per cent, the mood hardened. The cost-of-living crisis became more urgent and what might have been acceptable in May was rejected in August. More money must be found but it won’t be from the empty coffers of councils, which are already forced to eat into their reserves.

The stupidest intervention came from Angus Roberston MSP who blamed the minority Labour council in Edinburgh for the overflowing bins. Nobody would mistake Mr Robertson for a far-sighted seer but you would have thought someone might have pointed out to him that the same thing was about to happen in every SNP-run city as well.

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It was another symptom of how, this time, Ms Sturgeon and her coterie have been too clever by half. There has always been someone else to blame and the gullible were prepared to swallow that line. Now they are dealing with an army of angry low-paid workers who know exactly where responsibility lies and have a public sympathetic to them.

It is not just this dispute that needs to be resolved but the whole question of local government’s ability to provide services on which the less well-off are disproportionately dependent. Many of them are the same people now fighting for the pay rise they deserve.

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