Insight: On the front line of Scottish council cuts

IN A classroom in Wallace High School in Stirling the atmosphere is tense. Around 40 people have gathered to discuss the local authority's latest cuts proposals at the last of its public consultation meetings and they are not happy. It doesn't help that there were no signs directing them to the venue, nor that the details of the latest suggestions, added on after the Scottish Government budget announcement in December, only appeared on the website a few hours earlier, giving them little time to prepare.

Stirling Council must make more than six million pounds worth of cuts over the next financial year. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Stirling Council must make more than six million pounds worth of cuts over the next financial year. Picture: Ian Rutherford

But the greatest consternation has been caused by the proposals themselves. Some people are livid about plans to double music tuition fees, a move they say will mean only the most affluent will learn to play an instrument. Others have come to protest about a plan to force the headteacher in charge of both Crianlarich and Killin primaries to take on the nurseries at both sites in addition to his existing responsibilities.

The council officers attempt to justify their position: the latest proposals have come about because – at 3.5 per cent – the cuts local authorities face are much worse than expected. And the reason for the delay in putting them on the website was the length of time it took Finance Secretary John Swinney to explain how the £250 million being switched from NHS funding to increase social care services would be distributed (and the need to brief staff and elected representatives beforehand).

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As the members of the public are split into smaller groups, with council officers speaking to each of them in turn, the hostility eases, but a wariness remains. There is a general acceptance the cuts have been forced on local authorities by the Westminster and Scottish governments, but people are not convinced the Labour/Tory administration will make the right choices. There are muttered ­allusions to the officials’ salaries and ­expenses. And this is a week before it emerges the council has spent £32,000 on a second-hand Audi A8 for the ­provost.

At the education table, debate is fierce: not only does the council want to increase its tuition fees, but it is threatening to scrap its primary music and PE specialists while continuing to contribute to the Big Noise orchestra in ­Raploch (albeit at a reduced level). The introduction of a charge for nursery snacks also prompts questions about protecting the poorest. At 7.30pm, the event winds up, with the officers urging everyone to continue giving feedback online.

This public meeting is a microcosm of what has been happening across Scotland over the past few months as the country’s 32 local authorities try to balance the need to cut costs with the need to protect services. Stirling Council has had to find £6.3m savings using a process known as Priority-Based Budgeting (PBB). PBB helps local authorities focus on the services most relevant to their communities. If accepted in their entirety, the proposals would lead to around 350 job losses. Since August, officers have been engaging with unions, businesses, community groups and members of the public. Now Labour and Tory councillors are deciding what to accept and what to reject, in preparation for the budget-setting meeting on Thursday.

All this has been taking place against an increasingly bitter political backdrop. The anger councils are facing from members of the public is rivalled only by the anger they feel towards an SNP government they believe is holding them to ransom. The attack on council funding is one thing: Cosla insists the £350m cut to local authority budgets was unnecessarily punitive, especially given the £65m increase it says the Scottish Government received from Westminster. But it is the way in which Swinney has threatened to impose financial sanctions on councils who defy the council tax freeze or diktats on the pupil:teacher ­ratio – thus curtailing their decision-making powers – that has created the most resentment.

Scottish Government insiders say the SNP is exerting control because local councils have failed to protect education (and it is true that Stirling suggested cutting the school week by two-and-a-half hours until the government stepped in to prevent it). But the councils see the Scottish Government’s actions as typical of the SNP’s centralising tendencies and as an offensive on local democracy.

In her office at Stirling Council HQ, Johanna Boyd, one of only three female council leaders in Scotland, has just signed off a letter to Swinney, accepting “with a heavy heart and under duress” the Scottish Government’s funding settlement.

In her third year at the helm, she is weary of the relentless pressure to shave more off budgets. “No individual comes into political or public life to cut services,” says Boyd, who stood for Stirling in the general election. “Whatever you think about councillors – and whatever political party they come from – they are driven by a desire to serve their communities, so this process we are going through at the moment is tough.”

She believes the process is made more difficult by the fact the local authorities are so dependent on the government central grant (just 17 per cent of Stirling’s revenue comes from the council tax) and the limits that have been placed on what they can cut. “We no longer have control over our education budget – that’s 50 per cent of the total – and health and social care is being centralised into these integrated joint boards, so it’s leaving local authorities without any real power or any real influence.”

Boyd says Stirling has invested heavily in early years education – it was the first council to deliver 600 hours a year of free childcare for three and four-year-olds – but the constraints imposed by the SNP on teacher numbers have made it difficult to tailor the service to local needs. “What happens then is the hammer begins to fall on some very difficult areas – whether it’s additional support needs, music and arts specialists or music tuition fees,” she says.

When I suggest those constraints have been imposed because the SNP doesn’t trust councils to deliver, her hackles rise. “You have to ask: ‘Is this a respectful relationship or not?’” she says. “At the moment, I think we are often seen as the poorer, dimmer, less capable sibling. But there are bigger questions about local democracy, about what is it you want your councils to do. Do you want them only to fill the potholes and collect the bins? OK, fine, but when social care goes wrong or when the attainment gap widens, then you can’t blame them any more.”

Like other council leaders, Boyd is ­angry the public sector job losses aren’t being met with national outrage. “If this was in any other sector there would be task forces set up, but because it’s in local government it’s seen as less important. Well, actually, those job losses are going to impact on our communities, our economy.”

Stirling Council appears to be serious about public engagement, but it is a challenging exercise. No-one wants to see the services they depend on cut and it is difficult for councils to shake off the perception that high salaries and perks for the elite are protected at the expense of low-paid workers (especially when faced with PR disasters like the provost’s car).

Boyd is fired up about a £200m plan to transform Stirling into an economic and cultural powerhouse. Drawn up by private and public sector stakeholders and the Stirling City Commission, it involves creating a digital hub, a new civic quarter, grow-on space for SMEs and the redevelopment of King’s Park, but it is tough to sell such an ambitious vision in a climate of redundancies. Though hundreds of people have taken part in the consultation process, you only have to look at the council’s Facebook page – where references to the Audi and “wasting money you don’t have on a hub” abound – to see what the council is up against.

While the administration is going through the proposed cuts with a fine-tooth comb, the council continues to provide a lifeline for society’s most vulnerable. At Beech Gardens – a residential home providing short-term and respite care, as well as community support for the elderly – support worker Denise Coyle and senior social care worker Eilidh Campbell are heading to out to see Lisbon lion Tommy Gemmell, who has recently been discharged back to his own home.

Gemmell opens the door with a glint in his eye and an innuendo or six for his visitors. He has already fixed himself lunch – two pork pies and brown sauce – but he lays his plate to one side, glad of an opportunity for some cheeky banter, and reminisces about his glory days. He tells anecdotes about Celtic’s 1967 European Cup Final victory as Coyle fetches his medication and reminds him not to walk any distance without his zimmer on wheels. “They couldn’t have been any nicer or more helpful,” he says of the Beech Gardens staff. “I had my own wee room and a lot of privacy, but if I wanted to mix with other people that wasn’t a problem. They had a couple of nice communal rooms where we could play cards or dominoes.”

Watching the carers find a way to ensure Gemmell’s welfare while respecting his dignity is a reminder of the valuable work carried out on a daily basis by frontline workers as the political storm rages around them.

The following day, however, the cuts are once again at the top of the agenda. The coalition has finalised the budget to be put before the council and people power appears to have won the day. Gone are some of the most controversial proposals: the music tuition fees, the scrapping of music and PE teachers in primary schools, the shared head for Crianlarich and Killin primary schools and nurseries. This could be seen as a vindication of the consultation process and of the high-profile campaign waged by supporters of free instrument tuition, though news that a review of music provision is to be carried out at a later date suggests some of the most difficult decisions may simply have been deferred.

After the announcement, Boyd says Labour councillors have found a way to protect the most vulnerable, while her deputy, Neil Benny, leader of the Tory group, talks up investments in new schools (more than £5m), roads (£5m) and a rural broadband fund (£1.5m).

If this budget is passed, the impending crisis will have been averted. But so long as local authorities continue to be funded in the same way, they are fated to face the same stand-off year after year.

There is impetus for change. Last year the Commission for Local Tax reform recommended council tax be scrapped and suggested three possible alternatives: a replacement property tax, based on the value of land and buildings, a land value tax and a local income tax.

Boyd believes a much greater proportion of councils’ revenue ought to be generated locally. “My view is you need to get as near 50:50 [central/local] as you can,” she says. “I think the beauty of having a basket of taxes to choose from is that what is appropriate for Edinburgh – a tourist tax, for example – may be very different to what works in another local authority area.”

As there is a near-consensus on the unfairness of the current council tax system, reform of some sort seems inevitable. But whether a government, bent on centralisation and with an innate distrust of councils, will allow them to raise a greater proportion of their own revenues is a moot question.

Until change is implemented, concerns about cuts, sanctions, the perceived undermining of councillors and what this means for democracy will drag on. “Are we just there to administer central government cuts, because when you are going through that exercise, that’s how it feels,” says Boyd .

The council leader fears the negativity around local government will put other people off getting involved. “I came into this to implement the living wage, to improve on child care, to help tackle poverty. I think most of us are the same. But when you see the way the cuts overshadow the valuable work councils carry out, you do wonder: ‘Why would anyone be interested in doing that?’” «

Twitter: @DaniGaravelli