Insight: The cut backs Scottish councils have been forced to make

Abronhill High School building: the school featured in Gregory's Girl. Picture: Michael Gillen
Abronhill High School building: the school featured in Gregory's Girl. Picture: Michael Gillen
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Scott Macnab investigates the sacrifices six local authorities have been forced to make, and the key services they fear will be lost, as they bear the brunt of cost-cutting

When Nicola Sturgeon was taunted in parliament this week for presiding over a “Dickensian Scotland” after years of austerity cuts from Westminster and Holyrood, it brought home starkly the political crossroads she finds herself at.

The new Labour leader, Richard Leonard, decried the grim reality of more and more Scots turning to food banks, requiring emergency clothing parcels, while vital children’s services like breakfast clubs face the axe. It’s been a familiar theme over recent months as opposition parties at Holyrood urge the First Minister to use the parliament’s new powers to raise taxes in this week’s budget and reverse the impact of austerity.

The SNP leader does now appear poised to do just that. Her dilemma will be the extent to which the extra cash this raises –up to £250 million – should go to councils in an effort to offset the impact of years of budget reductions. Town hall leaders across Scotland claim they have been worst hit by austerity with about £590m lost from council budgets since 2012. And they insist frontline services are suffering with rubbish disposal, classroom assistants, additional needs support teachers and key areas of social care being cut. Affordable housing and efforts to tackle homelessness could also be squeezed along with welfare advice and support at a time of rising debt levels.

The annual bunfight between councils and the Scottish Government over funding levels has become a feature of the budget process. Council chiefs insist that the situation has now reached a critical stage and they need an extra £545m just to keep up with existing demand.

In Edinburgh, more than £20m of cuts are anticipated, with public spending watchdogs warning recently that three local authorities – Moray, Clackmannanshire and North Ayrshire – risk running out of spare money for emergencies after repeatedly dipping into their cash reserves. Here we look at the situation faced by six of Scotland’s biggest councils throughout the austerity years and what lies ahead.

NORTH LANARKSHIRE

Revenue allocations 2010/11: £668.5m*

Revenue allocations 2017/18: £602.9m*

Population: 338,260

Political control: Labour (minority)

One of most high-profile victims of the cuts across Scotland in recent years was the Cumbernauld school which found fame as the backdrop for the classic 1980s movie Gregory’s Girl. Abronhill High School, which had almost 580 pupils, was credited with putting the town on the map after providing the location for much-loved Bill Forsyth flick which starred John Gordon Sinclair and Dee Hepburn.

It was demolished in 2014 despite a long community campaign to save it from the axe. North Lanarkshire Council insisted it was part of a wider £150 million PPP scheme to improve schools across the region, but parents insist it was about saving cash.

Just a year later the council unveiled plans to axe almost 1,100 jobs in its bid to plug a £68 million black hole in its budget over a two-year period. The cuts were branded “devastating” by local unions which warned that services catering for children, the disabled and low paid would be among the worst hit by the proposals. The impact on local communities hit home when plans were unveiled last year to close a tranche of community centres and libraries as the council’s arm’s-length culture body faced a cut of more than £1 million to its budget. The number of mobile libraries in the area was also to be reduced.

Although teacher numbers are protected, proposals to axe teaching assistants in classrooms by almost 200 full-time posts have met with a furious reaction from parents. Thousands have signed up to a petition opposing the plans with claims that budgets cuts should not hit “children and families” who depend on services. And the pressure shows little sign of letting up, with the council facing a £5m shortfall with just £19.3m of its £25.1m savings target having been achieved. It has been forced to dip into its reserves and underspend in other areas to fill the gap.

FIFE

Revenue allocations 2010/11: £690.6m*

Revenue allocations 2017/18: 625.6m*

Population: 368,080

Political control: SNP/Lab

Cuts to health and social care have prompted widespread concerns in Fife amid fears that the vital services could be axed to meet a multi-million-pound funding shortfall. Some councillors voted against a plan to plug a £23m gap in the budget for health and social care, with claims that the plans were “unrealistic” and would lead to “significant cuts”.

Fife has been among the councils on the front line of austerity. Spending reductions of about £115m are looming across the Kingdom between now and the end of the decade, with council co-leader David Ross warning last year that officers had been told to plan for a future based on about 90 per cent of current budgets.

School music has been among the casualties with claims that learning an instrument is now a luxury for the “lucky few” as charges were ramped up to raise scarce revenues. A massive hike of 44 per cent was imposed – following an increase of 14 per cent the previous year – taking the annual cost of instrument tuition to £180. It has left barely a handful of children with access to such tuition, although council chiefs insist they rejected the possibility of axing the service altogether.

The closure of 16 libraries in the region, including popular hubs at Bowhill, Kinghorn, Thornton and Wemyss, has also caused widespread anger.

And there was shock among teaching unions earlier this year when a draconian list of possible savings to the forthcoming education budget were unveiled which examined the possibility of removing school clothing grants, reducing early years teachers and cuts to pupil support services. Council chiefs insisted it was an internal document with no decisions taken, but the EIS insisted that for the poor and vulnerable “even harder times are writ large”.

The budget constraints also led to the Beautiful Fife Gardens competition being scrapped.

HIGHLAND

Revenue allocations 2010/11: £501.4m*

Revenue allocations 2017/18: £437.1m*

Population: 234,110

Political control: Independent/Lib Dem/Labour

Highlanders were left bracing themselves for further austerity after a stark warning issued recently that the council was in its “worst financial situation ever”.

Hundreds of jobs have gone in recent years, with more to follow. Leading councillor Alister Mackinnon, who was behind the gloomy financial warning, said that “painful” times lay ahead. The prospect of services being axed, more charges for services and widespread cutbacks are all on the cards.

There is a financial gap of £129m-186m to fill by 2023. This is on top of £29m of cuts which were imposed on services last year, which saw vital children’s charity services hit, while plans were also set out for a reduction in the money given to social enterprises and Highland Blindcraft. There were also cuts to homelessness support and mental health social workers.

It’s been a familiar story at the council which has seen schools, social work, libraries and bin services hit in recent years. The number of teaching posts has been reduced (although this was in line with schools rolls) to meet a hardline drive to deal with an £18 million funding cut in 2014. School meal budgets have also been cut with a reduction in choice and an increase in charges.

Inverness also lost a bin lorry, with routes reviewed to take this into account. Parking charges have been imposed on Sundays in town centres, with motorists also forced to fork out for leaving their vehicles at Eden Court Theatre and the council’s own car park at its Inverness headquarters.

Meanwhile, a rising population, particularly in areas like Inverness and Lochaber, will lead to extra pressure on school rolls and accommodation, as well as general infrastructure. A stark report from council’s director of finance in June warned that protecting frontline services is “not sustainable”.

ABERDEEN

Revenue allocations 2010/11: £367.2m*

Revenue allocations 2017/18: £324m*

Population: 230,350

Political control: Lab/Tory/Ind

The Granite City took radical steps to deal with the impact of funding cuts when it became the first council in Scotland to issue its own bonds in an attempt to raise much-needed revenues. It helped raise £370m in local resources last year to drive a £1 billion capital spending programme for schools and other municipal building schemes. City fathers have even taken the unusual step of appointing outside local economic advisers, including RBS chief economist Stephen Boyle, to assess its prospects in the world of high finance.

The impact of austerity has been felt more acutely in Aberdeen in recent years, as it has struggled to deal with the impact of the oil crash in 2014 which saw global prices slump from above $100 a barrel to below $30 last year, before rising closer to $50 today.

Restaurants, hotels, even car dealerships suffered, while thousands of oil workers found themselves out of work. There are even fears that moving into the bond market could see speculators bet against the council if the oil price drops again. It certainly didn’t stave off a renewed wave of austerity as council chiefs set out plans earlier this year to save £125m over the next five years.

Although the impact on frontline services was not clearly set out, there was a stark warning that it must “understand and embrace” new ways of working. The council, which is now led by a Conservative-Labour coalition, set out plans in the summer to axe 150 jobs, with more to follow. Teachers were among those who were targeted in a voluntary severance programme as part of a drive to balance the budget.

GLASGOW

Revenue allocations 2010/11: £1.443bn*

Revenue allocations 2017/18: £1.225bn*

Population: 606,340

Political control: SNP

Primary school janitors have become the face of the cuts in Scotland’s biggest city in recent years. The justice4jannies campaign sprung up after plans were unveiled to end the traditional system of one janitor per school in Glasgow by introducing 30 operational clusters. The janitors took their campaign to the streets with protests outside Holyrood and the Glasgow Council chambers in an effort to get the public on their side.

Glasgow Council body Cordia also wanted to axe 33 posts from the council’s pool of 219 to save more than half a million pounds a year. They would also be renamed “facilities assistants”.

The 20-month dispute ended in August as janitors secured a 6 per cent pay rise and a cut in hours to compensate for the extended role they will play. The dispute was the backdrop to a swingeing programme of cuts imposed by the council last year which set out to axe 1,500 jobs as it sought to make up for a £130m shortfall in funding which city fathers claim was imposed by the Scottish Government. Community grants, Police Scotland cash and grass cutting services were among the areas poised to lose out.

The city also cut its support for the Theatre Royal, King’s Theatre and Pollok House. The frequency of cleaning services in schools, museums and offices was also reduced.

The misery in Scotland’s biggest city looks poised to continue next year with a £57 million cut being anticipated in the settlement from the Scottish Government.

EDINBURGH

Revenue allocations 2010/11: £816.3m*

Revenue allocations 2017/18: £706.8m*

Population: 498,810

Political control: SNP/Lab

Edinburgh’s Christmas and Hogmanay festivals are famous the world over and attract hundreds of thousands of tourists to the city. But they became the latest victims of austerity this year after council leaders slashed their backing.

It emerged earlier this year that new contracts to run the festivities proposed savage cuts to programming budgets, while the city’s Christmas festival lost its funding completely.

The celebrations are still going ahead, but a joint £1.3m contract for Christmas and Hogmanay will be reduced to just over £800,000 and ring-fenced for Hogmanay.

Council chiefs admit the reduced budget may mean the official programme of events may “require some reimagining”. City fathers in the capital also met widespread opposition to controversial plans which would have spelled the end for the renowned City of Edinburgh Music School at its current Broughton High and Flora Stevenson Primary bases. The mounting public anger resulted in a climbdown by the council, but there was a warning that 
the planned £360,000 savings would have to come from elsewhere, and they would be part of £21m of other cuts hitting the day-to-day lives of people across the capital.

The capital’s controlled parking zones are to be extended, while Sunday parking charges may also be introduced, along with greater bus lane enforcement. The council’s Night Team service for residents plagued by anti-social behaviour is also under threat, despite the growing problem as the number of “party flats” escalate in the city.

The number of sports pitches is also under threat, while opening times at community recycling centres could also be reduced. School transport services will also be severely cut in an effort to save £400,000, while £3m of cuts to the city’s health and social care budget are also looming.

*Source: the Scottish Government, local government finance settlement circular