Barely a day goes by without another report on the impact of cuts on local services, as councils start the difficult process of managing yet another round of cuts.
Today, I was speaking at Scottish Labour's Highland conference in Inverness. The Highland Council's plans to cut services were all over the media this morning, a timely reminder of the problems that face councils across the country. As with most of these stories, they end with a Scottish Government spokesperson claiming that councils are getting a 'fair deal'.
Even allowing for the exigencies of government spin, this is simply not true.
Councils have had an 8% cut in real terms since 2010/11. This isn't just down to Tory austerity, wicked though that is. Since 2013-14 council budget allocations have been cut by 6.9%, while the Scottish Government's Revenue Budget fell by 1.6%. Yes, there has been extra money for the government's priorities, but there has been a £590m cut in core funding. The money that pays for the basic local services that mark a civilised society.
Council's have plugged the gap with a 13% increase in charges, a regressive tax that hits the poorest in society. They have also used up an unsustainable £79m of reserves along with £500m of cuts. The biggest impact has been in local employment, with 30,000 jobs gone since the crash. If councils have had such a 'fair deal', then why are 9 out of 10 austerity job cuts in local government?
The last minute budget deal last year helped, but it still left a £225m revenue cut, in a year when the when the Scottish Government budget went up. It was mitigated by £100m from the change in council tax bands and lifting the council tax freeze. However, that still left a revenue shortfall of at least £55m. And that was just the consequences of central budget allocations. Councils faced additional unavoidable commitments like the apprenticeships levy and the cost of an ageing population.
In the current budget debate,the Scottish Government is receiving a £188m cash increase in its budget from Westminster, yet local government gets nothing. In real terms it is a £135m to £153m cut. Even if every council increased the council tax by the maximum 3% allowed, it would only generate £77m.
In practice, the cuts will be much worse because ‘real terms’ inflation will be much higher than the 1.4% assumed in the budget. The OBR forecasts are for RPI to rise 3.3% and CPI by 2.4%. There is no funding to meet the Scottish Government's new pay policy, which itself is less than the cost of living.
These are the numbers, but what about impact on services? UNISON has outlined the views of staff in eighteen ‘Damage’ reports. The common theme is that jobs are cut while demand increases, leaving staff stressed and demoralised while they attempt to keep basic services going.
Even statutory services have been cut and preventative work dropped almost entirely. An example of this is building control. Even after the Grenfell Tower tragedy, building control staff spend little time inspecting properties, while they cope with vacancies and government bureaucracy.
These cuts have a disproportionate impact on low income families who have a greater reliance on local services. Less obvious is the impact on the economy. On Monday, the Jimmy Reid Foundation will publish a report commissioned by UNISON Scotland on this issue. It shows how local authority funding is crucial to sustain and grow economic and social benefits to local communities and society in Scotland as a whole.
We simply cannot go on like this. We need a proper reform local finance, including the use of discretionary taxation. An end to ring fencing budgets and for central government to properly fund its own initiatives that are delivered locally.
Of course we should also look at reform and the Local Governance Review announced by COSLA and the Scottish Government before Christmas is an important initiative. But that won't plug the gaping financial gap anytime soon.
Tory Austerity isn't ending short of a general election and the U.K. Government keeps digging itself a bigger hole rather than changing course. But that austerity has largely been dumped on councils in Scotland, and more. The suspicion is that's because it is far removed from ministers in Edinburgh.
Everyone who cares about democratically accountable local services should be making the case for fair funding in the current budget debate. That then provides the basis for a serious debate about strengthening local democracy.