We’re living in interesting times in Scotland, and we’re on course to have more of a say than we have had for centuries when the Scottish Parliament gains new powers as a result of the Scotland Bill on the way. For this, we have the SNP to thank; for while their push for independence has fallen short (for now), they have delivered to Scotland more power and influence than we could have hoped for, say twenty years ago, before our Parliament was re-instated.
But for a party that promotes the idea of governing from the people up, it’s strange that they have such an ideological struggle against local government.
In the Government’s recently announced draft budget for the coming fiscal year, councils across the country are set to face yet another round of swinging cuts to already emaciated budgets.
This is not a problem of lack of funding, as Scottish Government budgets have increased by 16% since the SNP took power. In the same time frame, local government budgets (adjusted to include police and fire services that were centralised in 2013-14) have only gone up by 3%.
This graph shows the extent of the problems:
Source: Scottish Government, “Scotland’s Spending Plans and Draft Budget 2016-17”. pp. 173-75. Edinburgh: Scottish Government.
As you can see here though, rather than increasing local government budgets to make up the deficit, the Scottish Government plan to slash council revenue by 7.2% in real terms for 2016-17.
The SNP can talk about Tory austerity in Westminster all they want, but the measures they are forcing upon local authorities amounts to just the same. Even George Osborne’s cuts for local government in England don’t approach those of John Swinney, with the Conservative plan to cut budgets by 6.2% over the next parliament. The SNP are planning that over the course of just one year.
In a more devolved setup in Scotland, councils would be able to change their council tax rates to reflect the needs of their budget and of their people to respond to the cuts from above in revenue grants. This is the rationale behind the devolution of further tax powers from Westminster to Holyrood, and these are being delivered in the form of greater Income Tax control.
However, the SNP Government has perpetuated a 9 year long freeze on Council Tax, with the threat of further funding cuts for councils that dare step out of line, which has left local authorities frozen themselves to act on the changing pressures of an economy that has weathered a recession and is now, tentatively, emerging from it.
This means that the following cuts are being made to each council’s budget in the coming year, and there’s very little they can do about it:
Source: SPICe. “Local Government Funding: Draft Budget 2016-17 and provisional allocations to local authorities”. p.13. Edinburgh: Scottish Parliament.
Moray Council have floated a test balloon that they may be the first council in Scotland to defy the council tax freeze in a desperate move to reclaim some funds to stave off a mounting budget deficit. They may put local taxes up by as much as 18%, which would be a monumental rise, out of a sheer will to protect public services. For this they expect a £1 million funding cut from the Scottish Government, but one that they’re willing to swallow. What’s perhaps most surprising is that this is a Conservative and Independent led administration looking to raise taxes and spend more on services. Yes; you read that right.
What these plans show are an inherent contradiction in the SNP’s drive for a Government closer to the people. Their goals are to make the Scottish level of Government as strong as possible, as previously evidenced by their centralisation of police and fire services, at the expense of Westminster or councils – whoever it may be.
Essential public services that affect people’s day-to-day lives are being hit and hit hard and it is happening on the SNP’s watch. It’s time for them to abandon their ideological desertion of local government and to start spreading the new wealth that Scotland will create with its’ new tax powers around the country.
The May elections are fast approaching, and while the SNP juggernaut looks dead certain to storm to victory once again we need to remember that they are fallible too. They may have Scotland’s best interests at heart, but they need to make sure they actively look after those interests if they want to retain the confidence and support of the people they serve.