Leader comment: Cash-strapped councils pile pressure on SNP

Derek Mackay. Picture: Getty
Derek Mackay. Picture: Getty
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Derek Mackay is now more powerful than any of his predecessors, but also faces greater demands.

When the SNP first came to power at Holyrood in 2007, it did so after a campaign that dealt in bold primary colours. A vote for the nationalists would bring tangible benefits. Prescriptions, for example, would become free and the graduate endowment would be abolished, meaning university tuition was entirely free.

Perhaps the most broadly appealing pledge made by the SNP in 2007 was that council tax in Scotland would be frozen. After years during which bills soared, here was to be some respite for the politicians’ favourites, the “hard working family’. The SNP was as good as its word on council tax, signing local authorities up to an agreement to maintain the freeze.

This appeared a straightforward enough matter but behind the policy lay consequences that the majority of MSPs chose to ignore. A council tax freeze - effectively a cut, when inflation is taken into account - collided with tightening budgets to undermine services.

All that cash voters were now keeping could not be used to pay for the things voters wanted, even needed. Thus, services across a range of departments were pared back. This process has repeated, year-on-year, with services sliced ever thinner.

So we have a great deal of sympathy for local authorities now demanding that Finance Secretary Derek Mackay makes increased funding available to them in his December budget.

The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities - Cosla - has published a new report - Fair Funding for Essential Services 2019/20, outing the roles councils perform and making the case that proper funding is essential.

Regardless of which council service you might depend on - whether it’s bin collections or social work support - you will surely have noticed the impact of underfunding in recent years. According to Cosla, certain core services are now at breaking point and simply cannot be cut any further.

The SNP has fought hard for greater financial powers for Holyrood. The party’s success in this regard means Mr Mackay is more powerful than any of his predecessors in the finance department.If he chooses to do so, the Finance Secretary can make a real difference. Councils are at the sharp end of the delivery of public services. We can no longer live under the delusion that these services can be sustained while budgets continue to contract.