More than 40,000 jobs in Scottish local government are at risk over the next five years if austerity economics continue.
Today's 'The National' newspaper carries a story quoting my estimate of the likely job losses in Scottish councils. It's a headline because the current budget round is highlighting the massive scale of cuts each council is having to consider next year. The numbers are frighteningly huge in cities like Edinburgh and Glasgow, but proportionately the story is the same across the country.
So before anyone accuses me of scaremongering, I would point out that our estimates in the past have sadly been pretty accurate. I also suspect 40,000 may, if anything, be an underestimate. We know that nearly 40,000 jobs have gone from Scottish local government since the crash. We also know from the OBR and IFS analysis of the Autumn Statement that some 60% of the cuts planned by the ConDems at UK level are still to come. Given that there is to be no real change in the Barnett formula, you don't need to be a mathematician to see that our numbers add up.
Of course the Scottish Government could stop dumping the largest share of the cuts onto local government. However, that seems unlikely because that would require them to reduce health spending and politicians aren't that brave in the run up to elections. Even if it is council cuts that contribute towards the bed blocking that are causing so many problems in our NHS. They could also use the income tax powers they have and the new ones. However, as we also know from today's Audit Scotland report that only one civil servant is allocated to work on income tax, that seem pretty unlikely as well.
While we welcome the attempt to find a cross party consensus on local government finance through another commission, the Council Tax freeze continues. That's £2.5bn which could have been used to save services, rather than give handouts to wealthy households. On top of that we have the small business bonus that has cost a fortune without a scrap of evidence that it has created any jobs. We also need to remember that even if we do fix local government finance that is only a small proportion of council revenue.
Councils also have choices to make. Edinburgh's plan looks like another exercise in shifting the deck chairs around the Titanic. The loss of experienced staff, including middle managers, is becoming a real problem and one that even Audit Scotland has commented on in past reports. In many councils, inexperienced and quite junior staff are being asked to make decisions that could have serious consequences for councils and individual service users.
Today in Glasgow, staff and service users are protesting at the decision of Glasgow City Council to slash and burn mental health services in the city, currently provided by GAMH. It is rank hypocrisy for the council leader to announce his council's commitment to promote the living wage through procurement on one day, when the next day his council is planning to shift a service from a good living wage wage employer to another that doesn't. Quite apart from the blatant breach of the statutory requirements under s52 of the Local Government in Scotland Act.
So, while councils and the Scottish Government can rightly be accused of poor choices, the core problem is austerity economics as delivered by George Osborne. As I outlined last week in a commentary on the Autumn Statement, this is not just taking public services back to the 1930's - it is also damaging the unbalanced economic recovery. If we don't change course after the 2015 General Election, 40,000 jobs may only be the tip of the iceberg.