Faced with skyrocketing demand for services and constrained by a decade of under-investment and neglect, Scottish local government has set an example of agility, delivery and efficiency that the Scottish and UK governments could learn vital lessons from. From delivering free meals for children to keeping essential services like refuse collection going despite tremendous challenges, councils have stepped up to the plate and delivered for the most vulnerable in our society.
However, thanking Scotland’s councils for their efforts will not ensure essential services are maintained, nor prevent further savage cuts. Scotland’s councils are entering uncharted financial waters that contain a fiscal whirlpool that threatens to obliterate council services, with local authority umbrella body Cosla estimating a £50 million gap for essential services in this year’s Scottish budget.
Combine that with the Covid-related spend and a loss in income which is around £500m and it’s not hard to see the pressure councils are under, and that’s before we add in the cost of getting schools up and running again.
But that funding gap has been expanding exponentially throughout the SNP’s 13 years in power at Holyrood. Since 2013-14, the SNP government has cut the local government revenue budget at more than twice the rate that the Scottish Government’s own budget was cut in real terms.
To respond to the pandemic, councils have been forced to look to their reserves while they wait for support from both the UK and Scottish governments. While last week’s prediction that council tax hikes of 50 per cent might be needed for councils to survive, a figure of 25-30 per cent is probably more realistic. It would be unthinkable to pass on rises of that order to the public, given the unfairness of the council tax system and the loss in income many councils are facing, so we urgently need solutions to keep vital services going now and to enable our schools to restart safely next month.
This week, the Chancellor will put substantial spending plans before MPs. Significant investment in local government in England is expected, precipitating millions in Barnett consequentials for Scotland. If the Scottish Government is serious about supporting our communities, they must pass on all consequentials directly to local government without delay. The reluctance to forward Barnett cash to councils early in the pandemic was unforgiveable and only exacerbated the challenges they faced.
This time, SNP Finance Secretary Kate Forbes has the chance to do right by councils and the communities they serve: she must take that chance. We urgently need to see the same flexibility that the Scottish Government is asking for to apply to our local councils. This could include the option of phasing increases in council tax over the years to come, not raising them in a catastrophic one-off hike, and enabling councils to reprofile their debt and defer interest repayments to give them flexibility as we come out of the pandemic.
In the short term, there is much the Scottish Government can do to support our crisis-stricken councils. At the end of this week, it is expected that there will be around £345m in unclaimed business support grants from the Scottish Government. This money needs to be given to Scotland’s councils now so that they can support local businesses and kickstart their local economies.
Across Scotland we’ve seen examples of councils standing up and delivering for their communities in this hour of unprecedented need. We face an uncertain economic future, with unemployment rising dramatically and wages stagnating. It is time for action and the SNP must stand up for the councils that have supported our communities through the pandemic.
Sarah Boyack is a Scottish Labour MSP for Lothian
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