The stark impact of cuts to local services across Scotland has seen widespread reductions in school staff and growing social care backlogs, a report by the public spending watchdog today warns.
Public satisfaction is falling with key services like bin collections, street cleaning and libraries as cuts bite, the Accounts Commission states.
Litter, fly-tipping, graffiti and weeds are on the rise in communities as smaller services face the brunt of the spending cuts.
Many councils have been able to maintain and even improve services in a number of areas, despite hundreds of millions of pounds being cut from budgets in recent years.
But Scots face a postcode lottery in the level of service they receive across a range of areas which is “not easily explained”, according to today’s report entitled Local Government in Scotland: Challenges and performance 2018. “There is also some evidence that budget reductions are impacting on services,” it states.
“Public satisfaction is falling. There is evidence that social care services for older people are not keeping up with demand and there is a general risk to the quality of services.”
The need for councils to find savings to deal with the bleak funding outlook is “increasingly critical”.
Despite a small increase in revenue budgets this year from the Scottish Government, councils have faced a swingeing 9.6 per cent cut in funding since the turn of the decade.
It means key areas such as schools have seen budgets cut, although today’s report indicates that pupils from all backgrounds are performing better.
Spending on primary education has reduced by 2 per cent despite pupil numbers increasing by 9 per cent, while secondaries have seen a 9 per cent fall, despite pupil numbers being up by 7 per cent.
The report warns: “There is a risk that reduced spending in education is affecting pupils’ learning experience and staff morale.”
Teacher numbers have stabilised in line with schools rolls in recent years, but have fallen by more than 4,000 over the past decade.
And spending is not keeping up with the rise in pupils numbers. Administration and support staff numbers have fallen by 11 per cent, while library staff have been cut by 16 per cent. Music instructors are down by 30 per cent, while additional support needs carers are down 13 per cent, despite a growing numbers of Scots youngsters who need such help.
The flagship Scottish Government aim to close the “attainment gap” between schools in deprived and well-off areas also reveals a “variation” in standards. Affluent areas like East Dunbartonshire and East Renfrewshire perform, as expected, better than most, but other areas like Aberdeenshire and Moray, with low deprivation levels, don’t perform so well. Also, Inverclyde, with high deprivation levels, performs better than other areas which are similarly worse off.
And as Scotland’s population continues to age, cuts also appear to be having an impact on frontline social care. The number of over 65s receiving care at home fell by 9 per cent, despite homecare hours rising.
There also growing concerns about long waits faced by older people to get a care package as pressure grows on hard-pressed social work departments.
In Edinburgh, people were left waiting for more than three months, often meaning their conditions deteriorates and their package is no longer adequate. Many in the Borders face a similarly long wait to be assessed,
And overnight care for some terminally ill Scots wishing to die at home has seen these patients left with 24 different carers in a three month-period.
Councillor Gail Macgregor of local council body Cosla said the report shows the severe cuts local government chiefs face.
“Councils are balancing a real terms funding cut of 9.6 per cent over the last eight years with an increasing demand for essential services, particularly from a growing older population,” she said.
“For years now, Cosla has strongly lobbied the Scottish Government about the growing pressure from an ageing population and how we address the serious demographic challenges together in partnership.”
Councils are continually “faced with uncertainty” and an ever increasing demands as a result of Scottish Government policy decisions, Ms MacGregor added.
“One year settlements are debilitating for councils – Cosla is clear that we need multi-year settlements to enable us to provide long-term, sustainable, efficient and effective financial planning and essential service delivery.”
Staff cuts are also biting in councils across Scotland. Inverclyde Council has reduced its staff by just over 500 in the past seven years, but poised to axe up to 130 staff more staff. East Renfrewshire Council needs to reduce its workforce by an average of 100 staff a year over the next three years.
Other council services appear to be suffering, with satisfaction among the public in local schools down from 83 to 73 per cent, while the ratings for libraries fell from 84 to 73 per cent. Museums and galleries ratings dropped from 76 to 70 per cent, leisure facilities from 75 to 73 per cent, street cleaning from 73 to 70 per cent and refuse collection from 81 to 79 per cent.
The latest Scottish Household Survey found that only 56 per cent of adults were satisfied with three local public services – health services, schools and public transport.
Graham Sharp, chairman of the Accounts Commission, said: “Councils are facing the major challenge of reducing costs, maintaining services for an ageing population and putting significant policy and legislative change into practice – all at a time of increasing uncertainty.”
But Finance Secretary Derek Mackay said the cut in council budgets since the turn of the decade mirrored the reduction in Scottish Government budgets from Westminster.
“Despite these cuts to the Scottish Government’s budget we have treated local government fairly and in 2018-19, councils will receive a £10.7 billion funding settlement, providing a real terms boost spending,” he said. “In addition we are investing £750 million over the course of this parliament to tackle the poverty related attainment gap.”
Labour communities spokesman, Monica Lennon, said the report undermined Mr Mackay’s claim that councils are getting a fair deal from Holyrood.
“This expert report exposes the huge scale of SNP cuts to councils and the impact that has had,” she said.
Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said the report shows that many councils services are still “up for the chop”.
He added; “For too long the SNP have treated local government as the poor relation and now the public are paying the price.”