On the 15 December 2016 I received, via the President of CoSLA’s office, an ‘offer’ from Scotland’s Finance Secretary, Derek Mackay. That ‘offer’ was to cut North Ayrshire Council’s revenue budget by £9.2m and a flat cash settlement (i.e, no increase) in our capital budget. Mackay’s ‘offer’ included the demand that all council leaders write to him by the 20 January 2017 to state whether they accepted his offer. It went on to state that any council failing to accept the offer will ‘receive a worse settlement’.
Mackay proceeded to trail TV and radio studios to proclaim that his draft budget was not only a ‘fair settlement for local government’ but delivered increased funding for ‘local services’. Our local papers ran the press release from the SNP opposition group, who resigned from administration back in August, ‘warmly welcoming’ a draft budget that was ‘progressive’. Enough was enough.
Since May 2012, I had sat on the opposition benches in the council chamber and watched millions of pounds being cut from our budget. I had watched jobs go and public services be reduced or completely withdrawn. I watched how, with a majority in the Scottish Parliament, the SNP Scottish Government had threatened local councils with even deeper cuts if they refused to accept their deal and I watched an SNP administration that put up no fight against any of this.
I wasn’t going to do the same. Our communities deserve better than councils managing austerity. I penned my letter to Mackay and made it clear that we would accept no offer of cuts, especially when MSPs had not been allowed to exercise their democratic mandate to scrutinise his minority Government’s draft budget nor vote on it.
A number of other local authorities followed suit. The SNP Group on North Ayrshire Council told me to ‘stop bickering and get to grips with managing the councils finances’. In other words, manage the cuts. As we now know the Greens did a budget deal. There is no denying that it is better than December’s draft budget but, despite the spin applied, it is still a cut to council revenue budgets.
And it is non-recurring with only £29m coming from tax changes, the rest ‘accounting changes’. The same SNP Group who welcomed the draft budget and told us to manage the cuts now said the budget deal was ‘fair’ and would ‘protect public services’. Of course, they also had another attack on me because, to quote, ‘working with the Scottish Government achieves more than challenging it’.
That last quote is what is important for the future of local government in Scotland. Following the SNP/Green budget deal, the starting point for next year’s local government settlement will be just £29m better than the £327m real terms cut proposed in the draft budget.
This year’s Scottish Budget, which has increased by £418m in cash terms, is projected to be the best settlement over the coming years – so what sort of ‘offer’ can council’s expect from the SNP in future years then?
What happens if, as the polls predict, the SNP win control of a majority of Scottish councils? Who will take the fight to the Scottish Government to stop the cuts to communities? Who will call them out over their disdain for local democracy?
If our experience in North Ayrshire is anything to go by, there will be no fight from local government. SNP councils across the country will fall into line and manage the cuts. The impact on jobs and public services will be grave. The elderly will go without care packages. Young people will wait longer for Mental Health support. Our streets will be cleaned less and bin collections reduced. Education budgets will be cut, harming our young people’s future whilst the governance will be taken out of local authority control as the SNP’s centralising agenda goes unabated. More jobs will be lost, on top of the 40,000 already gone from Scottish councils, yet there will still be no taskforce to support the workers.
All this needs to be at forefront of voters’ minds when they enter the polling booth this May. They are not voting for one flag or the other, they are voting for the very future of their local public services and the associated jobs. We need Labour councilors elected across the country to protect our public services.
Joe Cullinane is a Labour councillor and the leader of North Ayrshire Council
Update: on Wednesday 1 March, North Ayrshire councillors became the first council to set a ‘no-cuts’ budget. This means using its reserves, its projected underspend and changes to council tax to invest an additional £12.3m in the local community and to stop Scottish government cuts. Joe Cullinane said: ‘I have proposed the most radical, anti-austerity budget seen in North Ayrshire for many years and I am absolutely delighted that it has passed. It stops the cuts and invests in our future. Source: Morning Star 4 March 2017.