I gave evidence last week to the Scottish Parliament Local Government Committee on what I believe are likely to be the key issues facing the service in the coming year. In my view the agenda is dominated by the financial position and I categorised the impact into three strands:
The Scottish Government allocation to local government this year was cut by 2.6%. But that is only the start of the story. Increasing demand, inflation and the recession means that councils have had to cut even further. We have identified £535m of cuts with 12,600 job losses across Scottish local government. These aren't projections, they are real cuts.
The economic impact of that is substantial with, according to the Treasury model, at least another 13,000 jobs lost in the private sector as a consequence. 70p in every pound spent on local government wages is spent locally. And for every job loss the state only 'saves' 8p in the pound.
Most service cuts so far are being achieved by salami slicing from services. Fewer staff are struggling to deliver the same services and that is resulting in delays and a diminution in service quality. The recent Audit Scotland report highlighted some of the impact this has on staff and service delivery.
There are positive reform initiatives and many of these approaches are identified in the Christie Commission report. However, the financial position is such that some councils are scrambling around looking for any proposal that might make savings, however ill thought through. The Edinburgh privatisation programme and the Clyde Valley shared support services are two topical examples.
Care procurement is another. We are seeing a race to the bottom in wages, conditions and quality of service. The Scottish Government's social care procurement guidance is very poor on workforce issues and even ignores their own statutory guidance. Integration is all very well but it is meaningless if you have a demoralised workforce.
We should not lose sight of the impact of UK Government reforms. In particular housing benefit changes that will undermine housing finance and cause administrative chaos.
All of this leads to a real concern over the future of local government in Scotland. The centralisation of police and fire simply adds to the growing quango state at the expense of local democracy.
The biggest contribution towards the financial cuts has come from the workforce. In local government there is a pay freeze without the modest underpinning for the low paid that happened elsewhere. Progress on the living wage has also been patchy.
Now those same members face an unprecedented attack on their pensions with a 50% increase in contributions. In return they will get worse benefits and be expected to work longer. And no, I am sorry, but the Council Tax freeze doesn't make up for that.
All of this adds up to a toxic mix with a demoralised workforce struggling to deliver essential services. There is a better way.