An interesting meeting yesterday with colleagues across the UK looking at developments in the delivery of council services.
Budget cuts dominate the council landscape at present as it is here in Scotland. Our initial analysis of cuts in each Scottish council shows that most are proposing cuts in services far in excess of that justified by the grant settlement in the draft Scottish Budget Bill. This is largely due to increasing demands on councils during the recession, reductions in charge income and the council tax freeze. The accumulated cost of the Council Tax freeze will be £210m in 2010-11 and the Small Business Scheme £93m. Difficult to justify this real terms tax cut, particularly to colleagues south of the border when English Council Tax increases have averaged 2.8% per year.
The Scottish Parliament Finance Committee today published its report on council finances (see UNISON Scotland web site for our response). It is a fair summary of the challenges facing councils although perhaps not surprisingly less strong on solutions. There was a welcome recognition that a pay freeze is at best a ‘blunt tool’ and that outsourcing should not be driven by cost alone. The report like the Scottish Government places considerable weight on shared services delivering savings. The research we have undertaken would indicate that any savings are at best long term and in most cases simply displace costs. Still it employs an army of management consultants – so it is a form of job creation!
Our meeting also looked at what are euphemistically described as “Alternative Delivery Models”. In England this is usually simple privatisation and Welsh colleagues reported similar problems, most notably Cardiff. In Scotland some councils are taking a renewed look at arms length organisations, primarily as a means of tax avoidance and to dodge equal pay obligations. Glasgow and Edinburgh have made extensive use of these mechanisms and others are considering them including South Lanarkshire.
Straightforward privatisation is still much rarer in Scotland. However, the SNP/Liberal led council in Edinburgh is planning to privatise 17 services, including bin collections, street cleaning and school meals. Many councils have outsourced at least part of their social care services, often initially to the community sector, who then have to compete against private or low cost community providers. The voluntary sector is facing a race to the bottom in terms of service quality and staff conditions. This is recognised in today’s parliamentary report. Regrettably we would have hoped for a stronger action than the further discussions promised.