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It mostly covers my work as UNISON Scotland's Head of Policy and Public Affairs although views are my own. For full coverage of UNISON Scotland's policy and campaigns please visit our web site. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Focus on council cuts - not CoSLA

As councils set their budgets for next year, the attention is on splits at CoSLA, rather than the impact of cuts in council budgets.

As UNISON Scotland has highlighted today, it is local government that is taking the brunt of the cuts. This is illustrated by the fact that local government is the only major Scottish spending portfolio that has taken a cash cut since the crash. In addition job losses have been proportionally higher in councils than elsewhere.

The Scottish Government can fairly point to Westminster austerity cuts as the underlying problem, but they also say they are protecting spending in councils. Self evidently, both cannot be true. At the risk of sounding like Thatcher, every worker facing wage cuts knows that they have to cut the family budget somewhere. The Scottish Government has chosen councils. The cynic might suggest this is because councils are further away from ministers - the 'not me guv' school of government spin.

The problem is exacerbated by the Council Tax freeze. Of course no one like to pay taxes, but as the recent CoSLA survey demonstrated people are not daft. They understand that that you can't maintain services and have a real terms tax cut. If the floods tell us anything, preventative spending is better than crisis management. I highlighted another example earlier this week - councils being forced to spend £1600 a day on pothole compensation because they don’t have the cash to repair the roads properly.

The Council Tax freeze is not even the best way to help hard pressed families financially - the social wage, as the Scottish Government likes to call it. As our infographic shows, it is the wealthiest households that gain the most - big time!

So what about CoSLA?

Well UNISON Scotland is a pretty unlikely defender of CoSLA given recent pay disputes. We have also argued that it hasn't always been strong enough in arguing the case for local government.

It is of course perfectly proper for councils to argue their corner on grant allocation. I would also argue that there is a strong case to look again at the formula to ensure that resources are targeted at areas of greatest need. Renfrewshire for example, made a strong case on this recently in evidence to the Scottish Parliament. To limit the inevitable council squabble, I would focus the formula on disadvantaged postcodes or wards, rather than the council as a whole. Even the poorest council areas have affluent areas and vice versa.

I would urge councils, as I did today on the BBC, to use the procedures to resolve their differences without a break up of CoSLA. I understand the concerns over proposed changes in the internal decision making process. CoSLA, like many large membership organisations, is not always light on its feet and shifting decision making to the full Convention is not going to make it any more effective.

However, keep an eye on the big picture. There is a need for a strong collective voice, across the political divide, making the case for local democracy in Scotland. The CoSLA, Strengthening Local Democracy Commission is at least a start. Remember the maxim divide and rule, because that is what will happen if councils don’t speak loudly with one voice.

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