I was giving evidence to the Scottish Parliament Local Government Committee today on the draft Scottish Government budget for the next financial year.
Our key concern is that local government is bearing the brunt of the UK government cuts in Scotland. £637m since 2008/9 and as a consequence over 30,000 jobs have been lost.
This is having a significant impact on jobs, services and in particular, the living standards of council and voluntary sector staff through job losses and cuts to pay and conditions. The General Resource Grant to councils is being cut from £7.189m this year to £6.971m next year and £6.809m the year after. In real terms the cut is even larger - £6.841m and £6.564m. We also highlight the shift from revenue to capital spend and the potential equalities considerations that don't appear in any government budget assessment.
The limited budget also comes with strings, the new form of ring fencing that was supposed to be abolished under this administration. Teacher numbers, small business bonus, and until this year, the absurd police officer target that has led to police officers being taken off the beat to substitute for police civilians at twice the cost. Another string is the joint working and community planning agreement. Most of this is fine, but joint working will always struggle while the partners have different accountability mechanisms. The Christie Commission identified this as an issue, but little has been done to address it.
The biggest constraint is the regressive Council Tax freeze the cost of which has now topped £2.5bn.
This is a huge sum of money that councils can ill afford to lose. We simply have to try and get a cross party agreement on local taxation, to break the policy logjam. Not just for financial reasons, but to return a degree of local democratic accountability to councils.
We also highlight the significant increase in charges that many councils are leaving to plug the gaps caused by the Council Tax freeze and other revenue reductions. Again, these are largely regressive; hitting those who need council services the most.
Most of the parliamentary committees this budget round are looking at the National Performance Framework – Scotland Performs. This was launched with high expectations that haven't been met. The data is often out of date and the format is not user friendly. There is no clear link between the Scottish Government Budget, its programme and Scotland Performs, neither physically as a web link on the site or in the discussion sections of the site. We would also like to see a move towards including the Oxfam Human Kind index in the performance framework.
Finally, we yet again draw attention to the outstanding equal pay cases. Despite helpful recommendations in the past by the Local Government Committee, progress remains slow with councils spending huge amounts of money on legal technicalities – challenges that they almost always lose. We need to move away from a compensation culture and towards an equality culture.