Local Councils between a rock and a hard place!

As the Festive Season falls away into memory, thoughts start to turn to the forthcoming campaign season once again.

The Campaign Committees have been pulled together, draft plans and timings are the topic of much heated discussions and the polls continue to look good for May 2016. Happy days would seem to lie ahead.

But for those of us who are fortunate enough to be in Local Government, it’s a bit early to put the hangover cures away because we now have to start wrestling with three major issues. We are firmly between the budget cuts rock and the hard place of reducing services.

The first, and most pressing, is the upcoming Budget setting for next year. Because of that decision back in Sept 2014, we have to deal with the consequences of the Budgets from Westminster and then from Holyrood.

We always knew that the next few years would be very tough for local authorities. In England the Local Authorities Association had identified, “A 40 per cent real terms cut to core Government funding over the life of the parliament, consistently reducing council tax referendum thresholds, £1bn cut to local council tax support funding to April 2016.” While John Swinney did much to protect Local Councils in Scotland he could not work miracles for ever.

Local Councils are frequently seen as being inefficient, wasteful, and with layers of fat ready for trimming. There might have been good cause for that view years ago, especially with some of our larger authorities more than willing to grandstand. Just think of Liverpool, Dundee, Stirling and most of all the GLA, as Ken Livingston went head to head with Thatcher. Yes, Local Council Leaders have on occasion lost a bit of perspective but the political excesses of the 80s are part of history. Thatcher did not exactly present as a consensus builder either!

In my own Council of Falkirk, that image of being divorced from the real world is being fostered as the Labour/Tory/Independent Administration pushes ahead with a new headquarters building at a cost of £25m while screaming poverty.

We knew that we were facing real cuts, and that very hard and painful decisions would have to be made. None of us came into politics to reduce services but since it was decided that Scotland was “better together” with the Tory cuts that is what we may well have to do.

We are facing up to some really hard decisions in February when each Council budget is set. Cuts of about £15 million had been anticipated for my own Council of Falkirk. Now Councillors and staff are being told by the Chief Executive that this has increased by about £6m on top of the £15 million. This would inevitably mean a reduction or perhaps even the end of some services! Naturally we will be scrutinising this very closely indeed.

As I write, we are waiting to find out if the extra £250m for health spending announced in John’s Budget will cover many if not all the services the Council provided, before the new Joint Boards for Health and Social Work, but this is not yet clear. If this is the case it would equate to an extra £7m coming to Falkirk, so you can easily see why we need to scrutinise closely.

The second headache is the Council Tax. Yes, we all know that it is not fit for purpose. Approximately 12% of Council funding comes from this source and to maintain services from such a narrow base is simply not possible long term.

And yes, any Council has been free to increase the Council Tax each and every year of the freeze. But it has simply become easier for unionists to berate the Scottish Government than to deal with angry electors. I asked our Director of Finance how much a 1% increase in the Council Tax would mean to a Band D payer? The answer was about £30 p.a.

To illustrate; The Scottish Government this year has given Scotland’s Councils an extra £70m of which Falkirk got £1.833m (2.62%) that equates to almost £80 a year saving for a Band D Council tax payer. And that is with inflation running at about 0.5%.

Put simply, this means that to end the Council Tax freeze and raise just an extra 1% would mean our Labour/tory administration forcing an increase of 3.62% or over £108 a year! I estimate that the Council Tax freeze now means that every family in Falkirk will be saving over £1000 each and every year. We need to make sure that people understand that Councils have been given that extra £70 million so that Council’s do not have to raid the wallets and purses of their voters, many of whom would love to have their incomes raised each year by over 2.6%.

Little wonder Unionists prefer to whinge.

Why not ask your local unionists how much the figures mean in your area? And don’t forget that they supported a freeze in the Labour manifesto for the 2011 elections.

But we still know that it is not a sensible tax and desperately needs to be replaced, but with what?

Any new tax should be able to raise enough money to make a real measurable difference to the community and to give back a proper sense of choice at the ballot box. That will mean having a proper conversation about what we want our Councils to do.

With almost 80% of funding coming from Government, we, as Council Tax payers, or as Councillors simply do not have any meaningful choices. We are merely managers of the funding given to us.

Whatever system is adopted after the May elections, it must be capable of allowing genuine political debate and decision making at a local level to take place.

Which brings me to the third issue. What do we want our local authorities to do? As a direct result of the cut in funding from Westminster and hence from Holyrood, local authorities are being forced to look very hard at all the services we provide.

And yes, every Councillor is fully aware that so many are seen as essential services to those who need and in many cases rely on them. But, as a society, we are increasingly unwilling to pay for them. Many folk talk about being ok with a “small” increase in Council Tax but when you explain that might mean £150, the position changes.

So we need to discuss what we want our Councils to do and why. Then we need to discuss how these are to be paid for. If for example Government are willing to decide on the number of teachers and the number of hours they teach, should they not then take the responsibility for them? If Government want to decree the levels of waste that must be recycled, should they not be responsible for that?

The counter argument is of course that the more powers the centre takes, the less influence local communities have.

But unless and until we have a serious debate about the role, powers and funding of local Government, the current unsatisfactory situation will continue with the same tedious, sterile tossing about of “facts”, figures and of course blame. I truly hope that when the new Parliament comes to consider the future system of local Government funding that the debate can move to a more serious and inclusive level.  With local government given a real chance to contribute.

I will not be holding my breath waiting for the unionist leopard to change its spots.