National utopias and local myopias – local government is the poor relation of Holyrood!

Gordon Munro looks back on missed opportunities to advance local democracy and delivery.

The left in Scotland has been a useful prophylactic for the SNP. While the SNP continues its independence fetish, UNISON called out the ‘silent slaughter’ in local government. The Fraser of Allander Institute put the job losses at 30,000.

The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA), which represents all of Scotland’s 32 councils, tried to make this an election issue by getting council leaders of all parties to sign and send a letter to the Scottish Government pointing out that councils faced a real term cut of £371m for 2022/23. It being an election year, £100m was found down the back of a sofa to placate the angry mob. The SNP needn’t have bothered given the local elections results: SNP 453 councillors with 34.1% of preferences compared to Labour’s 282 (21.7%), Tories 214 (19.8%), LibDems 87 (8.8%) and Greens 35 (6%).

These results show the cuts’ size and scale matter as the SNP received solid backing. This is further emphasised by the 44.8% turnout. Voters are not bothered about the cuts to their Councils. This will have informed the thinking behind the Scottish Finance Secretary recent announcement that up to 2025/26 councils can expect a 7% real terms funding cut. Westminster will be blamed. Many on the left will repeat that soundbite but this is not the whole story.

In 2017-18, the Scottish Government had a budget £34.5bn and underspent it by £339m comprising resource of £287m and capital of £52m. In 2018/19, it had a budget of £36.1bn and a record underspend of £778m comprising resource of £508m and capital of £270m. In 2019/20, it had a budget of £36.8bn but due to Covid it had a resource overspend of £899m but still had a capital underspend of £230m. In 2020/21, the budget was boosted by 27% in the main thanks to UK Covid monies to £50.7bn but still in the year of Covid managed a resource underspend of £373m and capital underspend of £207m.

So, COSLA’s demands on behalf of all Scotland’s councils could have been met each year. The financial position in each year was known when budgets for councils were set by Holyrood and COSLA formulated its demand in response. A choice was made to pass on cuts to councils. Therefore, what needs to be done?

The left need to organise around a campaign for fair funding for councils. This needs to be done within communities, within unions and trades councils, within political parties, within councils and also in support for councillors opposing cuts. Even the business community could get involved especially when you tell them that their council’s collected business rates which are directly passed to the Scottish Government but in turn received less back – £156m in 2017/18 and £165m in 2018/19 – than was collected.

The SNP was elected on a promise to end the ‘unfair’ Council Tax in 2007 and has failed to deliver. It was dodged as part of the compact with the Tories for the 2007-12 Parliament. However, the SNP government of 2012-16 could not avoid the pressure from councils and public sector unions to act upon the promise of 2007.

Aping the Westminster tactic of an ‘inquiry’, a Commission into funding worked to produce the ‘Just Change’ report in 2015. Issued jointly between the Scottish Government and COSLA, it stated there was ‘an unarguable case for change’ which was expected acted in the 2016-21 Parliament. There is no sign that this will be tackled by the current SNP-Green Scottish Government. It will take pressure from outside Holyrood to make that change happen as Holyrood has made it quite clear it prefers to pass on cuts than take the responsibility for which proclamations are issued when pressed but action avoided.

The warning has been given with the Ministerial statement on the ‘Resource Spending Review Framework’ on 31 May 2022. The Minister proclaimed: ‘We need to focus on how the public sector can reform to be more efficient … so reform will focus on maximising revenue through public sector innovation; reform of the public sector estate; reform of the public body landscape; and improving public procurement’.

This language actually means job losses, asset stripping, and contracting out culture not public service provision. In its review of local government finance in Scotland, Audit Scotland pointed out that: ‘Councils are operating in a difficult and uncertain strategic context and face longer term financial pressure’ and that this is due to a ‘real terms reduction in funding from the Scottish Government … since 2013/14 larger than the rest of the Scottish Government budget over the same period’.

Public service provision has been built up over time with demands and struggle from the shopfloor with a legacy of parks, libraries, leisure centres, council housing, community centres, jobs with recognised terms and conditions all of which will play a key role in our communities in the recovery from Covid.

However, given the funding framework in which Councils have been placed, they will have to be ‘more efficient’. They will have to ‘maximise revenue through innovation’. They will have to ‘reform the public sector estate’. The inheritance of council’s from their predecessors is one that has taken generations and struggle to build but like Lidl says, ‘once it’s gone, it’s gone’. So, will it be flag waving or service saving? Which side are you on?

Gordon Munro was a Labour City of Edinburgh Councillor 2003-2022 for the Leith ward. He is also a member of Unite and was Labour candidate for Edinburgh North and Leith in the 2017 and 2019 General elections.