‘Salami slicing’ of council budgets cannot go on forever and major structural reform may be required.
Local authorities often bear the brunt of public anger for a myriad of reasons. And that’s understandable, given the education of our children, the care of the elderly and infirm, and the number of potholes in our roads are all highly emotive issues. Everyone, it sometimes seems, has a reason to be cross with their councillor.
But, lately, there have been signs of a change in the mood. Instead of anger, a tide of public sympathy is rising for these hard-pressed champions of local democracy as they fight to deliver vital services with, some might say, one hand tied behind their back by the Scottish Government.
Year-after-year of cuts to council grants have hit home hard and the SNP’s cries of “Tory austerity” have been challenged, and risk being drowned out, by a new one: “SNP austerity.”
Derek Mackay yesterday insisted local authorities would see a rise totalling more than £400 million as a result of his proposed Budget for 2019/20, a “real terms” increase of two per cent.
But the councils hit back by saying much of this money would have to be spent on central government initiatives such as the £234m expansion of childcare and so cuts to frontline services would continue.
Labour’s Alex Rowley described the impact of cuts on education in Fife as “horrific”, saying parent councils were starting to join forces to form a more effective campaign.
The Scottish Government could be forgiven for being a bit pre-occupied with Brexit at the moment. But, for their own sake as well as the country’s, ministers need to be aware of this rising tide of anger heading their way. The charge that Nicola Sturgeon’s administration is too concerned with independence to manage Scotland’s day-to-day affairs properly could become electorally fatal one if allowed to gather steam.
But, putting aside arguments about who is to blame, it has perhaps come to the point where continued ‘salami slicing’ of budgets cannot continue. So, either the cuts need to stop, or a more fundamental structural reform is required. So instead of trying to do the same thing for less money, councils may need to find a more efficient way of operating. We realise this is easy for The Scotsman to say, and harder to actually do. But it will require councils and central government to stop pointing the finger and work together.