Councils in Scotland '˜suffer the brunt' of austerity cuts

Almost £750 million has been axed from budgets for frontline services like schools and social care in recent years as councils 'suffer the brunt' of Scots austerity cuts, new research has revealed.
Finance Secretary Derek Mackay, with Nicola Sturgeon, bowed to demands for extra cash for councils in this year's budgetFinance Secretary Derek Mackay, with Nicola Sturgeon, bowed to demands for extra cash for councils in this year's budget
Finance Secretary Derek Mackay, with Nicola Sturgeon, bowed to demands for extra cash for councils in this year's budget

This is a “much faster rate” than the decline in cuts to the Scottish Government’s budget from Westminster, a new report by the independent Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe) has shown.

Some areas of Scotland have seen steeper cuts than others. People on the Western Isles experienced a £504 per cut in their funding per head over the past five years, while people on North Ayrshire have seen a £36 fall.

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The figures have prompted a stark warning from council leaders they now have “no room to manoeuvre” when it comes to dealing with the scale of the cuts. Councils have seen their revenues for day to day spending tumble by £744.7m, down 7.1 per cent, in the past five years, according to the report entitled Local Government Finance: Facts and Figures 2013/14 to 2018/19. The Scottish Government’s own revenue budget fell by £547m  during this period – a fall of 1.8 per cent. Children’s services, rubbish disposal, schools support and social care are among the areas which councils have warned could suffer as budget constraints bite.

A spokesman for local government body Cosla said: “There is no doubt that councils have suffered the brunt of cuts in recent years and the simple truth is that Scotland’s councils have no room left to manoeuvre in terms of budgets.”

Early figures indicate the 2018/19 financial year’s cash deal for town halls is set to rise slightly by 0.3 per cent, but only after Finance Secretary Derek Mackay agreed to the Greens’ demands for an additional £160m.

Funding for councils has fallen as an overall share of the Scottish Government funding, the Holyrood report finds, down 1.9 per cent as more cash is diverted to areas like the NHS.

People on the Western Isles have been hit by the biggest fall in funding per head of £504 a year for every citizen, although this also includes population changes and the way funding is calculated. The biggest mainland falls has been on Argyll and Bute where funding is down by £288.

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Tory local government spokesman Alexander Stewart said: “The SNP has comprehensively under resourced local government.

“As the Scottish Parliament Information Centre has laid bare, the SNP destruction of local government funding has taken place despite their own increasing budget.

“This demonstrates the total contempt the SNP has for hard-working taxpayers who are faced with increasing council tax bills along with decreasing services.”

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Councils chiefs warned in November that £545m was needed in 2018/19 to offset the impact of years of austerity. But the extra £160m found by Mr Mackay meant their funding barely stood still after the 3 per cent hike in public sector pay was covered.

The past two years have also seen a dramatic 7 per cent increase in the costs of fees charged by councils for the services they provide. This can include the costs of entry to leisure centres, charges for residential care, statutory repairs to housing and even school meals.

Parking charges are among the fees which have seen huge hikes in recent years. A recent Freedom of Information request by the Scotsman indicated a £5.6m increase last year to more than £70m, prompting claims motorists were being used to offset the impact of austerity.

A Scottish Government spokesman said the report’s figures excluded £355m, which had gone jointly to health and social care, and £150m of other cash, which combined to make a smaller decrease in council funding.

The spokesman added: “In 2018/19, our £10.9 billion local settlement government will provide a real terms increase in both revenue and capital, at a time when the Scottish revenue budget faces continued real terms cuts, showing that we have treated local government very fairly in face of those. And with local authorities using their powers to increase council tax by the maximum allowable 3 per cent, they now have access to an additional £251.9m for day-to-day spending on local services, compared to 2017/18.”