The Scottish Government must ditch the blame games and provide fair funding for councils, writes Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard.
Scottish local government is close to my heart. In the days before devolution, it was often the last line of defence against attacks on local communities waged by Tory governments. But it was also an arena for innovation and local initiative. Some ideas pioneered at council level found their way on to the national stage in housing and transport, in equalities, education and even economic development. And they still do.
So I agree with Alison Evison, the president of our councils’ umbrella body Cosla, when she said this week that we are talking of “the sphere of government closest to Scotland’s citizens”.
And of course, her comments about local government’s importance come not in the abstract, but as context to a stern real-world warning. Ahead of the Scottish Government’s budget, she noted that “whichever way you want to dress it up, the reality is that in recent budgets the Scottish Government has chosen to overlook the essential services that communities rely on day in, day out”.
It’s not just her view – or mine. Fifteen months ago, the Accounts Commission concluded that “funding for local government from the Scottish Government decreased at a faster rate, 6.92 per cent, than the Scottish Government revenue budget at 1.65 per cent”. In other words, for all their attempts to blame the Tories – who it is true have decimated local government in England – for the failed experiment of austerity, SNP ministers in Edinburgh have quadrupled the cuts that were handed down to them.
Passing the buck
But how could any Scottish government get away with this? From schools to home care, from libraries to bin collections – with the possible exception of the NHS, this is where most of Scotland’s people interact with government and the public sector. Councils and councillors are also citizens’ first port of call when things go wrong – from the heating in rented flats to elderly relatives left in the lurch without a care plan. Surely it would be politically toxic to take the axe to council budgets in exactly the way the SNP has done?
Unfortunately, ministers have cynically deployed the very fact that local government is closer to Scotland’s citizens in order to shirk responsibility. So when I challenged Nicola Sturgeon over failing care services in South Lanarkshire at First Minister’s Questions last week, she was happy to pass the buck to the SNP-controlled council. And by proxy, she passed the buck to ordinary citizens, who will feel a closer affinity to councils and the services they provide than they do to national governments. While many people consider there to be a direct link between the council tax levied on their homes and the services which they receive, council tax accounted for only £2.3 billion of local government revenue in 2017-18. Non-domestic rates accounted for £2.7 billion, but the majority – £6.7 billion – came from the General Revenue Fund allocated by the Scottish Government.
And there have been consequences as a result of the SNP Government’s approach.
Rising demand for services
In 2018, Scotland’s councils held assets valued at £42.97 billion. But rather than a reassurance, we should take this as a warning. These possessions range from single-occupancy flats, to pension fund investments, to architectural gems held in trust for the public they were built to serve. They are each attached to significant costs or debts. And as councils struggle with rising demand for services such as home care, alongside falling budgets, the cost demand of servicing these assets and the potential sale revenues will make it more and more alluring for councils to be tempted to dispose of them.
It is often cultural services which suffer first: 30 public libraries closed their doors altogether in Scotland in 2017 alone. Many others have seen their hours cut. We are now reaching the point, however, that even statutory services like home care find themselves truly at breaking point. In the past three years, 23 of Scotland’s 32 councils have been forced to draw down from their reserves. As a result, councils now hold £45 million less in reserves than they did just a year ago.
Central Government ministers have set targets and commitments for local government, which could be an effective means of improving services. But without giving councils the financial resources they need to meet these, it becomes simply an effective means of shifting the blame for austerity.
Devolution of power
So ahead of the Scottish budget on March 5, Scottish Labour is calling on the SNP Government to ditch the easy blame games and take some responsibility. Just because there is greater local accountability for local government services, it doesn’t mean central Government can abdicate responsibility for a deliberate choice to underfund them.
But we won’t stop there. Over a decade after the SNP promised to abolish the council tax, local government increasingly finds itself under central control: including over the setting of council tax. That’s why I want the principle of subsidiarity – the devolution of power as close as possible to the grass roots – to form part of Scottish Labour’s offer on constitutional reform. A particular challenge is now facing us. With the onset of Brexit, the powers which currently lie with the European Union will be repatriated. The question is where to. They cannot be concentrated in Westminster and Whitehall. They must be devolved. But the strengthening of local government must be part of that.
Local government, unfashionable a cause as it may be, will be the bedrock of a more democratic future for Scotland. It should be about bread but it should be about roses as well: theatres and swimming pools as well as roads and bin collections. It is a means to establishing a better, more empowered and more enriched quality of life for our citizens.
It is critical to inspiring renewed confidence and rekindled hope in every community across Scotland.
But that can’t be done on the cheap. So let’s remind the Scottish Government that now is the time for fair funding for Scotland’s local council services.
Richard Leonard is Scottish Labour leader and an MSP for Central Scotland