Leaders: Swinney budget shifts burden to councils

The anti-austerity rhetoric of John Swinney may ring hollow when the burden is passed to local authorities. Picture: Neil Hanna
The anti-austerity rhetoric of John Swinney may ring hollow when the burden is passed to local authorities. Picture: Neil Hanna
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FINANCE Secretary’s anti-austerity rhetoric rings hollow given impact of continued council-tax freeze on local authorities

At face value John Swinney’s budget has much to commend it. Few would argue with his mantra that public services ought to be protected.

So extra spending on the health services is to be welcomed. Similarly, his promise to offer real-term protection to the police budget over the next few years is also a reassuring measure, given current security concerns.

Nicola Sturgeon has made education a key priority, so the £33 million to be invested in attainment programmes is perhaps not unexpected, but is nevertheless also welcome.

These announcements were accompanied by strong anti-austerity rhetoric from Mr Swinney, who was anxious to contrast his government’s approach with that of David Cameron and George Osborne.

Delivering his budget statement at Holyrood, Mr Swinney made much of the UK government cuts that are heading Scotland’s way. Hence his declaration that reform is required if public services are to flourish in this harsh economic climate.

He advocated a singularly Scottish response against the austerity he said was being inflicted on the country by the Tories south of the Border.

But it is when one drills into the detail of the budget that Mr Swinney’s fine words begin to look a bit hollow.

This was a budget that was designed with the intention of not frightening the horses ahead of next year’s Scottish elections. It was perhaps not a classic pre-election budget in that Mr Swinney did not produce a rabbit from a magician’s hat in the form of a headline grabbing sweetener. But the truth is that the SNP’s dominance in the polls is such that there is no need for a conjuring trick.

He did, however, take the utmost care not to spring any nasty surprises. Income tax will remain the same, despite Holyrood’s new powers. There will be some who baulk at his proposal for a tax on second homes, but his Land and Buildings Transaction Tax will remain unchanged.

Moreover, the SNP’s totemic council-tax freeze will remain in place for another year. What could come back to haunt him, however, is that he has passed on the financial pressures to councils. The squeeze on council budgets means that it is local authorities who are going to be left with the hard choices. They could range from how frequently bins are emptied to which employees are to lose their jobs.

Consequently, Mr Swinney’s claim that he has produced an anti-austerity budget loses its gloss. The Scottish Parliament has a host of economic levers that could be used to raise more money, but the Finance Secretary has declined to use them, presumably because the government thinks the council-tax freeze goes down well with the electorate. Who wants to pay more taxes?

So the Scottish Government inflicts austerity measures on councils. But that could backfire in electoral terms, when the recipients of council services see them cut, or the many voters employed by councils take umbrage when their jobs are put under threat.

A childish slanging match

So, Donald Trump is a “three-time loser”, and Alex Salmond is a “has been”. There plenty of observers who would not demur on either verdict on these big personalities, but our national discourse has regressed to the puerile tit-for-tat of the playground when the figureheads in a debate over a wind farm to name-calling.

One is as bad as the other, but it is unfortunate that Mr Salmond chose to personalise his remarks when responding to the news that Mr Trump’s legal challenge to a planned offshore wind farm, close to the American’s golf development on the Aberdeenshire coast, has been rejected by the UK’s Supreme Court. The former first minister’s choice of language was only ever going to be met with an equally barbed response.

We could suggest that this need not be taken seriously, as passions that run high over an emotive issue are sure to die down, and what has been said in the heat of the moment is recognised as such.

The bad news, however, is that this fall-out has the potential to become pettier still. If Mr Trump is stung by the way he has been ditched and dismissed by a man he thought he could do business with, revenge must be a temptation. The tycoon has serious business interests in golf developments at the Menie Estate in Aberdeenshire and at Turnberry in Ayrshire, and should he want to signal his displeasure, he could up sticks and move on.

Would Mr Trump cut off his nose to spite his face? Possibly. But it should not be forgotten that this is a man for whom money talks. Ultimately, the value of his investment will matter more than winning a war of words. Mr Trump needs to learn that we do business here a little differently than he is used to.