Parliament today will finalise the spending allocations for Scottish local government following on from the Budget Bill debate yesterday. Much sound and fury as usual in the chamber, but the phrase 'moving deckchairs around on the Titanic' more accurately captured my feeling watching the debate. Shifting a few million here and there simply misses the point. This budget may put off a number of difficult spending decisions past May, but it will result in massive cuts to our essential public services.
The approach to local government is of particular concern. In November’s draft budget, the Government presented councils with a Hobson’s choice: deliver key SNP policies, such as freezing the council tax and maintaining police and teacher numbers, or face an even bigger cut in your budget allocation. The Government claimed that councils who signed up to the ‘package’ of Government priorities would face a cut of 2.6 per cent, while councils who did not would face a cut of 6.4 per cent.
The continued council tax freeze prevents councils from raising vital funds and at the same time provides a real-terms tax cut to the wealthiest homeowners at the expense of vital services. The demands to recruit 1,000 extra police officers is simply a cosmetic political exercise. It simply means that large numbers of police (civilian) staffs will be cut. This will mean fewer police on our streets as they are taken off normal duties to perform administrative and specialist tasks they are not qualified to do at a greater financial cost to the public.
The Scottish Government started well in trying to forge a new relationship with local government. Less central control, reduction in ring fencing etc. However, they have now moved full circle in this settlement by dictating how council budgets are spent. In our response today UNISON describes this as ‘handcuffing’ local authorities, sounding the death knell for local democracy. Democracy is the defining difference between public and private services and it is vital local authorities are able to allocate funds based on the local needs of their communities, not political spin.