Leader comment: Pay-offs inevitable as councils have had to cut services

The long-standing freeze on council tax has led to redundancies as councils have tried to make ends meet, which in turn has incurred significant severance payments.
The long-standing freeze on council tax has led to redundancies as councils have tried to make ends meet, which in turn has incurred significant severance payments.
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It’s hardly surprising that news of councils spending £627 million on redundancy and retirement deals in the last six years has attracted controversy. It’s a lot of money to pay people not to do their jobs, so there’s little shock in hearing campaign group the TaxPayers’ Alliance describe the sums involved as beggaring belief.

But behind outrage over the compensation awarded to those losing their jobs is a story of local authorities stretched to the limit – and being asked to do even more.

More than 15,000 severance deals for workers – at an average of £40,000-a-head –- sounds like a lot of money. But it also sounds like a huge reduction in staffing levels. For those who rely particularly on certain council services, it also answers questions about the quality of service available.

When the SNP came to power at Holyrood in 2007, its decision to freeze council tax levels was massively popular with the electorate.

But once headlines about SNP efficiency had been and gone, we were left with 32 councils that – year after year – struggled to maintain quality service on ever-constricting budgets.

There is certainly a case to be made that the public sector in Scotland is flabby and inefficient in places but not all of those made redundant at high cost were “fat cat” managers of caricature. Instead, the majority were ordinary staff doing vital if unsung work.

It is undoubtedly true that we would rather that the money spent on golden goodbyes had been used to maintain council services. But we cannot begin to begrudge compensation for those whose careers have been prematurely curtailed by cuts-driven managers.

For a decade, Scotland’s local authorities abided by the SNP’s ruling on council tax freezes; they struggled to cover costs and, inevitably, they began laying off swathes of staff. The question now is not how much has been spent on redundancies but how these staff changes have impacted on services?

Can councils that were already struggling financially honestly report that massive numbers of enforced redundancies have really made for a better quality of service for the public?

It’s easy to express anger about hundreds of millions spent on redundancy deals in councils but a more legitimate target would be the Scottish Government decisions that left local authorities no option but to slash their workforces.