Local government is at the heart of our communities and is the key vehicle through which our Parliament supports people in their lives. Our councils deliver the services that we all use day in and day out and that shape our communities. They are how our communities get to influence the decisions that matter throughout everybody’s lives, such as those relating to nursery, work, our environment, and care and support. Therefore, it is disappointing that the Scottish Government’s amendment would delete all our motion, in which we identify the raft of issues for which local government is crucial. The amendment also refuses to acknowledge that cuts have been disproportionately passed on to our councils.
Over the past few weeks, we have been working with and listening to our local government colleagues and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. They are clear that the Scottish Government needs to provide fair funding settlements to local authorities and integration joint boards. A fair settlement is one in which local authorities are not forced, yet again, to go through the vital services that they provide to find what the Scottish Government refers to as efficiency savings—which are, in reality, cuts. A fair settlement is one in which the true cost of national and centrally decided policy commitments—which are made by the Scottish Government but delivered by local government—is included in full in the funding that local government receives. A fair settlement is also one in which due consideration is given to the long-term impact of the inadequate funding of local services on the people and communities whom we and our councillor colleagues represent.
We all know that, without adequate funding, local authorities are forced not just to cut back on services such as community services, libraries and fixing potholes but, increasingly, to charge for services, which hits those on the lowest incomes hardest.
No. I recommend that the member looks at the
Official Report of the Local Government and Communities Committee, in which members across the parties talk about preventative spend. The issue is not just about money for local government; it is about a joined-approach that enables people to be cared for by local government, so that they can avoid going into NHS facilities in the first place.
Local government in Scotland is as diverse as the communities that it serves, and every council has to deliver the education that our young people need. However, the ring fencing in the Scottish Government budget leaves little scope for the differing educational needs of our communities to be reflected in our schools.
Although teachers’ wages are rightly increasing, local government is facing an insurmountable challenge to ensure that classrooms are adequately staffed, not just with teachers but with classroom assistants and other vital support staff. How can it be right that access to music tuition increasingly is for only those students whose families can afford it?
It is not just through schools that local authorities have the capacity to impact and shape educational opportunities. Through community investment, they have the power to enable school students to enjoy and learn about the local environment that they live in, enable them to take part in community projects and make sure that we have empowered communities.
Our motion talks about the critical issue of transport services. Our local councils provide the day-to-day transport infrastructure that we need, but cash-strapped councils struggle to repair vital infrastructure. The climate emergency means that we urgently need to rethink how we do transport: we need more bus and active travel commuting options. However, the Scottish Government’s ring fencing of funding has meant that, as councils grapple with tough decisions, non-core-funded services get cut. Whether it is having to leave a pothole for an extra six months or deciding against making crucial improvements to transport links, those are the realities of day-to-day cuts to council budgets.
An example of what we need to do is the Labour amendments to the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019, which enable our authorities to run and invest in their own bus services. However, that needs investment in skills and capital investment in buses. It would be a win-win for councils across the country to own and operate their local bus services. We just need to look at services in my area. Affordable public transport that people can rely on enables an increase in low-carbon bus use, which is vital to meeting the Government’s ambitious climate targets.
Dignity and independence are crucial for people. The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union highlights the right to dignity in its first article. That should be protected and respected. When we translate that right from aspirational politics into day-to-day reality, local government is responsible for upholding it.
What does dignity mean? It is the ability for people to live independently in their own homes and to know that they will be looked after when they need to be. Local government is responsible for supporting people throughout their lives—whether that is through providing social care, ensuring that infrastructure that they need for work and other activities is in place, or making the best of slashed budgets to look after them while they are at school.
Respecting and protecting dignity through adequate service provision at the local level is a vital aspect of long-term planning. To pick up on John Mason’s point, by investing in social care, local authorities are not just supporting people as individuals but relieving the burden on the NHS through enabling them to live at home, as long as they can do so safely.
However, in 2018-19, delayed discharges cost the NHS £129 million. That is hampering local government’s ability to carry out preventative spending tasks.
We are all keen to see the Scottish National Party Government’s budget as well.
In considering the key issues, we must not just look to the future, but reflect on the past. This Government could and should have done much better on issues such as making homes accessible for those whose care needs have changed. The Scottish Government is wasting vital healthcare money, which, if it was better spent, could result in instant impacts in our communities.
An Oxfam report that came out this week highlights poverty and the huge number of people acting as unpaid carers. The Scottish Government itself estimates that almost half of carers—45 per cent—in the most deprived areas of the country care for people for 35 hours a week or more, which is almost double the level in the least deprived areas. That is not even going into life expectancy, in which, in the that city we are in, there is a more than 20-year gap between the people who are best off and the least well off.
Local government is crucial in tackling the key issues that we face now and will face in future, whether it be tackling the drug deaths epidemic or fighting climate change. That will need leadership, investment, and staff with new skills and knowledge. I am sure that the Scottish Government will acknowledge that there is also a challenge within the Scottish Government.
In an evidence session to the Local Government and Communities Committee, Unison stated:
“Over the past 10 years, there has been a growing crisis in terms of experience and skills in local authorities; one in seven local authority workers has left employment since the beginning of ... austerity.”
I am not just blaming the SNP Government; there are others in the chamber who could be lobbying for more money, and another budget is yet to come that will be helpful to us all.
I return to the Unison quotation:
“People who have become old enough to withdraw their pensions and have been offered voluntary redundancy have left local authorities, so there has been an experience gap, or an experience brain drain. That is a direct result of the cuts.”—[
Local Government and Communities Committee
, 2 October 2019; c 2.]
Without the funding to ensure that the right number of adequately trained staff are in place, how does the Scottish Government expect local government to tackle the issues on a local level? By disproportionately cutting local government funding, the SNP Government has been making a false economy, which is seeing Scotland stagnate and is having an impact on local economies throughout the country.
Local government cannot continue to address these challenges while it is facing a disproportionate level of public sector spending cuts. In real terms, budgets fell by 7 per cent between 2013-14 and 2019-20, compared with the 2 per cent cut to funding that the Scottish Government experienced over the same period.
On several occasions, the member has said that there has been a disproportionate cut to local government budgets. The corollary of that is that is there has been a disproportionate uplift in other portfolio budgets. What other budgets should be decreased to transfer resources to local government? If it is not a question of rebudgeting, is it a question of taxation? What are the Labour Party’s taxation policies? I ask in all sincerity; I want to hear proposals and policies.
If we are going to empower local communities, let us start with our local councils and let us start now. Being a valued and essential partner is utterly meaningless if proper and fair funding is not addressed.
To pick up on Tom Arthur’s point, we have yet to see progress on the SNP’s pledges for an overhaul of our local taxation system. We are happy to sit with the ministers and have the debate. We would prefer to scrap the council tax and replace it with a progressive alternative based on up-to-date valuations, and give councils new revenue-raising powers, including land value capture. We would get on with implementing the tourism tax, which was one of my bits of unfinished business from the previous parliamentary session. In doing so, Labour would recognise the vital and equal roles of local government and our devolved Parliament in ensuring that the people of Scotland get the services that they deserve. We are all here to represent our constituents and our elected colleagues in local government.
That the Parliament commits to supporting people and communities; believes that local government has a crucial role in doing that, and that the role of the Scottish Government is to ensure that it provides fair funding settlements to local government; commits to work with them and support them to ensure that education fully prepares young people for a rich and fulfilling life; considers that transport services enable people to fully engage with activities and work; recognises that local government has a pivotal role to play in looking after people, allowing them dignity and independence throughout life and providing quality care and support in their community; believes that local government has a crucial role to play in tackling some of the defining challenges facing Scottish working people, from the climate emergency to the drugs death epidemic; expresses dismay that local government has experienced a disproportionate level of public sector spending cuts, with real budgets falling 7% between 2013-14 and 2019-20, compared with the 2% cut to funding that the Scottish Government experienced over the same period, and therefore calls on the Scottish Government to provide investment in the services that communities need.
Today’s debate is important because it gives us a chance to recognise the importance of local government in supporting our people and communities.
Working with local government, we have jointly articulated the type of country we want Scotland to be—fairer and more inclusive with opportunity for all. That is captured in the national performance framework, which focuses on people and the places where they live, and on improving outcomes and wellbeing for all, especially for the most disadvantaged in our society.
In securing those shared ambitions, we face fiscal, economic, social and political challenges. That is why central Government working in partnership with local government, as the two spheres of governance in Scotland, will be critical. In a country of 5 million people, there is no other way of working; it is what Campbell Christie challenged us to do in his report nearly 10 years ago. Such partnership is critical if we are to empower our communities, deliver positive outcomes and maximise the impact of our resources.
Indeed, today I have just come from Sighthill in Glasgow, which is undergoing the largest regeneration project outside London. The massive transformation of that area in the north of the city will see new housing and infrastructure, driven by massive ambition for the people and place, and enabled through local and national Government, among others, working in partnership. Along with investment along the canal, the north of Glasgow will be transformed. The project shows the positive effect that can be generated through national and local government working together.
I am the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government, but I know that the impact and reach of what local government brings to our communities is wide and varied, and it touches on the portfolios of many of my Cabinet and ministerial colleagues. Indeed, the Labour Party motion outlines the ways in which local decisions and local government interplays with our day-to-day lives in terms of education, health and social care, transport and the climate emergency.
That is why, as my amendment outlines, despite Tory austerity and cuts to the Scottish budget, we have endeavoured to be fair in our funding settlements for local government. In 2019-20, we delivered a funding package of £11.2 billion to local government, a real-terms increase of more than £310 million. That represents around a 27 per cent share of our overall budget. During this parliamentary session, local government has received a cash increase in its overall budget settlements of £862 million, which represents a real-terms increase of 2.4 per cent. Guided by our commitment to partnership, that is why new fiscal powers are being transferred to local government as part of the 2019 budget deal.
I remind Graham Simpson that, if we had followed his party’s budget proposals last year, South Lanarkshire Council, the council on which he was a representative, would have had £29.9 million less to run services in that area. Again, we will take no lessons from the Conservative Party about how we continue to treat local government fairly.
Perhaps we should also think about how we treat councils here in the Scottish Parliament compared to in other parts of the United Kingdom. When we do that, we see that a lot of councils across England are struggling. English councils have faced a cash-terms revenue budget reduction of 14.7 per cent between 2013-20. If we look at those figures, we get a sense of the level of rightful protection that we have given our local authorities, because of their importance in delivering for our communities. That work and that financial support enables us together to work hard for the people of Scotland, addressing the challenges of persistent inequality and climate change, and delivering inclusive growth and wellbeing.
Our transformative work to expand the hours of flexible, high-quality childcare provision symbolises the power of partnership working and collective leadership to improve life chances and invest in our future. Our collective support for children and families continues through the life journey of our young people. Preparing our young people for a rich and fulfilling life is rooted in the education that they receive, and we can be proud that spending on education is being prioritised and school spending per pupil is consistently higher in Scotland than in other UK countries. Ensuring that every child, regardless of their background, has every chance to succeed, is why we invest to tackle the attainment gap, with the Scottish Government and local government investing at record levels in our young people’s education.
The cabinet secretary is quite right to point out that, if we accepted the Tory proposals for the budget, the cuts to public services would be even deeper. Indeed, Tory failed austerity plays a big part in that.
I question the point about joined-up working, which is not taking place. The cabinet secretary talked about schools but, in Fife, hundreds of thousands of pounds have been stripped out of every secondary school in the current academic year, which is having a real detrimental impact. I see the cabinet secretary looking at the Minister for Public Finance and Digital Economy—it is hundreds of thousands of pounds per secondary school. Class sizes are increasing to over 30. I should declare an interest in that my granddaughter is in a class of around 33. The approach is just not working and we are not tackling inequality and poverty while those problems continue to grow in our communities.
I absolutely agree that we need to tackle inequality in our country. That is why, as I announced last year, we will be taking forward the Scottish child payment, which will put money directly into the pockets of people who are the most vulnerable, and it is why we have invested £750 million during the current session of Parliament to tackle the attainment gap, which will help to ensure that every child has equal access and opportunity to succeed. That includes £33 million to support care-experienced children and young people; £120 million of pupil equity funding, which goes directly to headteachers; and £50 million to continue the challenge authorities and schools programmes for a fourth year. We are absolutely continuing to invest in supporting the most vulnerable in our society but, as I will go on to say, we do so with one hand tied behind our back.
Our joint partnership and funding approach extends to the learning estate. At least one new school project is being delivered in every local authority area in Scotland, which I assume includes Fife, through the joint £1.8 billion schools for the future investment programme. The Scottish Government’s £1.3 billion contribution will see the construction or refurbishment of 117 schools and will benefit more than 60,000 pupils by summer 2020.
Our shared commitment to delivering for our young people can also be seen in our ambitions for housing, on which we have made the biggest investment since devolution, and for health and social care, on which, in 2019-20, we increased our investment in social care support and integration of health and social care to more than £700 million.
Will the minister reflect on the fact that the learning estate investment programme, or LEIP, is not an investment programme but a maintenance programme, and that not a single penny goes towards building schools? It is simply for maintenance, so will she correct the record on that matter?
We have the schools for the future investment programme and we are investing to support the most vulnerable pupils in our country. We are certainly proud of that record, and we will continue to invest in education.
Absolutely. I am reminded by my colleague of PFI, which was an utterly failed attempt by Labour to invest in schools across the country, and one that we will continue to pay for, for generations to come.
We are certainly not complacent and we need to think about the future. Last year, we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Scottish Parliament, which provided us with a useful opportunity to think about what next for the governance of Scotland and to consider where power should lie, how we empower our communities and what needs to change to ensure that governance in Scotland is fit for purpose for the next 20 years and beyond. That shared endeavour between the Scottish Government and COSLA has included significant work by my colleague Kate Forbes to look at fiscal empowerment for local government and providing it with more fiscal autonomy.
Our commitment to that can be seen in the changes that we are making to the local taxation landscape, which are giving greater fiscal autonomy to our partners in local authorities. We have introduced the first primary legislation on non-domestic rates since devolution and our commitment to a package of measures on local taxation, including providing new tax powers to local authorities, will, if supported by Parliament, be the biggest empowerment of local authorities since devolution.
However, as I said at the start of my remarks, all of that partnership work and focus on outcomes and wellbeing faces enormous challenge. Our resources have been constrained by a decade of United Kingdom austerity, and the UK spending round announcements in September did nothing to reverse that damage. Our discretionary resource budget from the UK Government will in real terms be around 2.8 per cent lower in 2020-21 than it was in 2010. That is why it is absolutely unacceptable that the UK Government has failed to adequately engage with the Scottish Government on the budget timetable.
On top of that, I remind Mr Rowley that we are trying to tackle poverty with one hand tied behind our back and against a backdrop of callous and cruel social security cuts, which stymies our efforts to deliver positive outcomes for the most vulnerable. Analysis published in 2018 found that UK Government cuts would reduce social security spend by up to £3.7 billion by 2020-21. Those are brutal cuts that leave us trying to mitigate their worst impacts by mitigating the bedroom tax and providing crisis grants but, as United Nations special rapporteur Philip Alston said,
“mitigation comes at a price and is not sustainable.”
As we debate where and what we should spend our money on and how we should ensure positive outcomes in the communities that we are elected to represent and serve, members must hold us to account and scrutinise the choices that we make. However, let us not forget the hurt and pain that has been caused by austerity and welfare reforms, and let us not forget to point the finger of blame fairly and squarely at the UK Government.
L et us not forget that if any of the parties that are taking part in the debate want us to make different choices or have different priorities, they must be open and honest and point to where we should shift the spend from.
The motion rightly recognises the pivotal role that local government plays in looking after people and communities, and contributing to the wellbeing of our country. Regardless of what party we represent, we all agree on the importance of local democracy and the local sphere of government. We all agree that local government must be supported, which is why the Scottish Government has continued to treat local authorities fairly, and to work in partnership with them to make good on the aspirations and aims of our national performance framework.
I welcome today’s opportunity to illustrate the value that we attach to our partners in local government, and I welcome the chance to give examples of where we have backed that up with action and investment.
At the COSLA conference that was held a few months ago, I said that, regardless of whether we have “MSP” after our name or “Councillor” before it, we are all elected to ensure that we do our best for the communities that we serve. I hope that, in the spirit of co-operation and collaboration, the debate is constructive and enables thoughtful consideration about service delivery and outcomes, and enables us to focus on working hard to embed a positive future for our country.
I move amendment S5M-20528.2, to leave out from “commits to supporting” to end and insert:
“considers that local government is a valued and essential partner in delivering services for the people of Scotland as co-signatories to the National Performance Framework; recognises that, since the start of the current parliamentary session in 2016, local government has received a cash increase in its overall budget settlement of £862 million, a real terms increase of 2.4%, as a result of the Budget agreements between the Scottish Government and the Scottish Green Party; considers that local government’s share of the overall Budget has been maintained at around 27%; notes the new fiscal powers being transferred to local government as part of the 2019 Budget deal; further notes that discussions on the power and responsibilities of local government are ongoing, and calls on all parties to act responsibly by bringing forward constructive proposals for the Scottish Budget.”
I thank the Labour Party for selecting the issue of local government funding as the subject of the debate. It is a well-timed debate, because we now know that the Scottish Government will present its budget on 6 February. The timing is also helpful from the Scottish Conservative perspective, given that, at the weekend, we set out our asks to the Scottish Government. Labour’s debate is well timed to enable us to outline to members the very reasonable requests that we are making of the SNP Government in relation to next year’s budget.
I will put the debate in context and reflect on some of the comments that we have heard from Sarah Boyack. It is true that local government has been the whipping boy of SNP budgets over the past decade. Every local authority in Scotland has had its budget cut, even though the SNP Government has had increases in its block grant. Looking at the 2019-20 budget, we see that, according to the Scottish Parliament information centre briefing, the non-ring-fenced revenue funding that is available to councils fell by 2.5 per cent in real terms, which was a decrease of some £230 million.
I know that the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government will argue that there were additional revenues in the form of specific ring-fenced resource grants, which took the total revenue funding up in real terms. However, those were funding streams that followed specific additional commitments, which meant that the core sums that were available to local government to do all the important things that it has to do fell in real terms. I note that that was in the year when the Scottish Government’s block grant from Westminster increased.
If we look at what went before, last year was not untypical. According to SPICe, in the period between 2013-14 and 2018-19, the local government revenue budget decreased at the rate of 7.5 per cent in a period when the Scottish Government’s equivalent budget decreased at a rate of just 2.8 per cent.
It is an accepted fact that local government funding forms 27 per cent of the overall Scottish Government budget, which it has done for a number of years. If Murdo Fraser is arguing that local government is getting less, and if the 27 per cent proportion has remained consistent over the course of the past few years, I assume that he accepts that his party has severely cut the Scottish Government budget.
That does not give the entire picture, as the Minister for Public Finance and Digital Economy will understand. During that period, the Scottish Government has put extra obligations on local councils that they did not have before, so, although the level of funding has stayed steady in proportionate terms, local government has been given extra duties and commitments—in childcare, for example—without receiving proper funding in addition. Therefore, the minister is not quite correct in her interpretation of what has been happening.
In the same period of 2013-14 to 2018-19, some councils have had drastic cuts to their per capita funding. The largest cut in real terms was for the Western Isles, at £572 per head, and the greatest reduction in real-terms revenue funding per head for a wholly mainland authority was for Glasgow City Council, which saw its funding reduced by £270 per head.
I listened with great interest to the picture that Aileen Campbell painted of local government across Scotland, which would be unrecognisable to councils and council officers—even those from her own party who are in administration and who struggle with having to make budget cuts.
As Sarah Boyack reminded us, in addition to the cuts in funding, we have seen an increase in ring fencing. Those of us with long memories recall the historic concordat between the SNP and COSLA back in 2007, which was part of an initiative to remove ring fencing. At the time, it was held to be a great step forward that freed up local government. Here we are, 13 years on, and the historic concordat is long forgotten. Ring fencing has crept back in.
In the past year, the level of ring fencing has doubled. On that direction of travel, it will not take long for the figure to get up to where it was in 2007.
Increasing ring fencing puts additional pressure on council services in the areas that are not ring fenced. According to Audit Scotland, council services outside of health, police, early learning and childcare, secondary school attainment, higher education and social security could face a real-terms reduction of between 1 and 16 per cent in their budgets.
We can see the impact of such budget ring fencing across Scotland. Local authorities have to make tough choices and cut services and the opening hours of libraries; reduce grants to important third sector organisations; close schools and reduce teacher and classroom assistant numbers; and cut school crossing patrollers. Alex Rowley referred to the situation in Fife schools, which is replicated across Scotland.
Councils then have to raise money by other means, either by raising the council tax by the maximum of 4.79 per cent—12 councils did that last year—introducing charges for garden waste collection, or even considering the introduction of the hated car park tax that resulted from the SNP’s grubby deal with the Green Party last year.
Councils are also raiding their reserves, last year to the tune of £157 million. In the past three years, 23 of Scotland’s 32 local authorities have drawn from their reserves, and some are simply running out of money.
All those cuts are being made at a time when the Scottish Government’s overall budget is going up. It is raiding the budget of local government. What does that mean for the budget in the coming year, 2020-21? We know that the block grant will be the highest in a decade. We expect at least £1.2 billion in Barnett consequentials, due to increased spending on health and education south of the border. According to the Fraser of Allander institute, we are looking at a 2 per cent real-terms increase in the block grant from Westminster. Against that backdrop, there is no need for either additional tax rises or cuts to council services.
At the weekend, the Conservatives set out our requests to the SNP Government in relation to the forthcoming budget: no additional increases in personal taxation, although we would prefer the gap to narrow; a fundamental review of business rates, and at the very least the maintenance of existing reliefs; and the reduction of the large business supplement to the rate that applies south of the border.
On spending, we want to see all Barnett consequentials arising from health spending down south applied to the NHS in Scotland, an extra £50 million for the police, and, crucially in the context of this debate, no more real-terms cuts to local government core funding.
On local councils, our request reflects COSLA’s demands: at least an inflation-linked increase in the core revenue budget and all new commitments to be fully funded from the centre. That is a realistic and affordable request and it is the right one at this time. It is the minimum that our councils require, and is contained in our amendment.
The approach that we are taking is very reasonable. For too long, local councils have borne the brunt of cuts from this SNP Government. For too long, this Government has treated local government as a cash cow. It is time that that stopped and, with more money in its budget for the coming year, this Government has no excuse to make further cuts. On that basis, I am pleased to support Labour’s motion.
I move amendment S5M-20528.1, to insert at end:
“by including in its forthcoming Budget for 2020-21 an increase in local authority core revenue and capital funding from the Scottish Government of at least the rate of inflation, and providing full funding in addition to this for all new and additional commitments.”
The Greens welcome this debate on local government. In our view, much work remains to be done to reform how we are governed in Scotland in order to ensure that we have strong, autonomous and empowered councils.
Our amendment was not selected, but it covered our key positions. In particular, I draw members’ attention to the fact that we called on the Scottish Government and all political parties to redouble their efforts to achieve further fiscal devolution to local government and to replace the council tax with a modern, sustainable and progressive system of local land and property taxation.
Over the past 20 years, local democracy has been not only neglected but undermined by successive Governments, through, for example, the council tax freeze. The failure to strengthen local government has been a source of continual comment by those who have observed the work of this Parliament.
In November 2016, in the aftermath of COSLA’s commission on strengthening local democracy, I secured a debate seeking Parliament’s endorsement of the commission’s final report. The commission included representatives of the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, Labour, the SNP and the Greens. The Conservatives lodged a wrecking amendment to my motion, and it was agreed to by the Tories, the SNP and the Liberal Democrats.
Parliament does not have a good record on having serious debates about local government. However, it is obvious that Scotland is not a normal European country with regard to how we govern ourselves. Local government in Scotland is not local and it does not govern. Indeed, at the beginning of devolution, in 1999, the McIntosh commission noted:
“It could be said that Scotland today simply does not have a system of local government in the sense in which many other countries still do. The 32 councils now existing are, in effect, what in other countries are called county councils or provinces”.
COSLA picked that up and, in 2013, said:
“Scotland is one of the most centralised countries in Europe. It is no coincidence that our European neighbours are often more successful at improving outcomes, and have much greater turn out at elections. We cannot hope to emulate the success of these countries without acknowledging that they have more local councils, local elected councillors represent fewer people, and that these councils and their services are constitutionally protected and their funding secured by law, even with regard to national policy making.”
In Scotland, we have 32 local authorities, yet the Netherlands has 408, Norway—which has a population similar to Scotland’s—has 428 and Belgium has 589, while in Germany there are more than 11,000 councils at the lowest tier of governance.
On fiscal empowerment, only 12 per cent of the funding of Scotland’s local authorities is under their own fiscal control, and even that meagre autonomy, in relation to the council tax, is compromised by the Tory-style rate capping that is imposed not by statute, which would be lawful, but by holding councils to ransom by punishing them if they set council tax rates that do not meet the preferences of Scottish ministers.
As members know, if Scotland’s fiscal policy on local government were to be in place in many European countries, it would be illegal, as it would violate the varying constitutional protections that are in place to prevent Government from interfering in the fiscal affairs of the local state. That is why Greens are proud to have secured at least a commitment to introduce a fiscal framework for local government. Just as a set of rules now exists between London and Edinburgh to govern the financial relationship between the UK and the Scottish Governments, which provides clarity, certainty, transparency and predictability in the financial arrangements between both—although, of course, the arrangements should be improved—so, too, there should be a similar framework in place governing the process by which local government finance is agreed.
I am proud that the Scottish Green Party has, over the past three years, delivered £420 million more for local services than would otherwise have been the case, protecting libraries, schools and other vital services. In contrast, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Tories have postured endlessly while delivering nothing. The budgets since 2016 have not been perfect—they were not green budgets—but they have been vastly improved by our participation in the process.
Labour’s motion contains nice words and there is not much in it with which I disagree, but it says nothing substantive about where we go from here.
The member claims that the Greens have delivered extra money for local government, but they have not done so. There have been cuts year on year. Not a penny extra has been delivered for local government.
The local government settlement has been vastly improved by our participation in the budget. As I have just said, they have not been green budgets—they are not the budgets that a Green Government would have passed. However, if Neil Findlay and his party had better offers to make, if they had a better negotiating stance and if they had a proper offer to make on budgets, they have not provided them over the past three years.
To their credit, at least Murdo Fraser and the Tories are making proposals this year. Although we do not agree with the proposals, we welcome that participation. Labour says that it wants local government to be empowered, yet its motion fails to reflect that, and its response to giving councils the power to introduce workplace parking levies suggests that it is still unable to move away from centralisation.
Our amendment was clear that local government needs both fair funding and fiscal powers. We do not think that Murdo Fraser’s amendment has been presented in good faith. If it was, he and his colleagues would have been at the table over the past three years attempting to negotiate a budget deal. The Conservatives have not treated the budget process seriously over this parliamentary session; their proposal this year—high expenditure and tax cuts—is not credible and they have continued to ignore the climate emergency. Worse than that, they dubbed our proposals for a climate emergency budget as “madcap”; Adam Tomkins at the weekend spoke about sidelining the “ludicrous Greens”; and the Tories are refusing to take part in cross-party talks to replace the hated council tax.
As for the Government’s amendment, we give thanks for the name check but we cannot support it. It gives misleading figures on what constitutes the local government finances over the past few years. If Opposition parties took the budget seriously, they would be attempting to build on what the Greens have achieved and they would have our support in doing so.
I thank Labour for bringing this debate to the chamber. In a pre-budget warm-up, it is an important part of the budget process, because local government, as Sarah Boyack said, delivers the services that communities rely on every day of the week. From the early years to school education, roads, public transport, libraries and sports facilities, those services are the things that we really care about in our communities.
It is frustrating that the minister cannot simply be straight about local government finance arrangements. The reality is quite different from what the minister has said, and we see that daily. We see in our local newspapers the impact of the quite dramatic changes in local government finance that the SNP Government has imposed. The local government share of the overall revenue budget was 34.7 per cent in 2013-14 but 33 per cent in 2019-20. That is a reduction, and charges are up and services have been cut during that period.
Not just now.
The SNP Government says that, in the past year, the revenue budget went up by £253 million, or by 1 per cent. That is true, but the commitments that the SNP Government has made on local government’s behalf were up by £400 million, which was Murdo Fraser’s point. The result, therefore, was cuts to the core budget of £147 million. If the budget goes up but the commitments go up, there is a cut to the ordinary things that local government does, which I have just listed. Why on earth cannot the Government just be straight with people and with local government?
Not just now. I will come to the minister in a second, once I have finished my point.
It is important that the Government is straight with people about the promises that it makes, the funding that it provides and the gap between the two. It cannot take the credit for the extra commitments that it makes on behalf of local government and then blame local government for the cuts that are the result of its budget. That is simply not honest with people and not honest with local government.
My number 1 ask is that the Government follows through on the promises that it has made to the people of Scotland and provides local government with the money that it promised. Those were not our promises; they were the SNP Government’s promises. Half of COSLA’s £1 billion ask is just to meet the promises that the SNP Government says it has made on behalf of local government.
Not just now.
Just meeting those promises would be a help, for a start, and would account for half of the COSLA ask. Inflation of 2 per cent does not seem a radical proposal from COSLA—that would be £200 million. To make up for the damage of recent budgets, which I have just pointed out—the reduction in local government’s share of the overall revenue budget from 34.7 per cent to 33 per cent over recent years—and to repair just some, not all, of that damage would cost £308 million. If we added those figures together, that would be £1 billion—which is required just to stand still; it is not about a massive expansion of local government finance.
All that local government is asking is that the SNP Government delivers what it promises—and that it does not just promise, fail to deliver and then expect local government to pick up the tab.
Let us look at some of the good things—
Not just now.
There are some good things, such as mental health counselling in schools, which is excellent, and the Carers (Scotland) Act 2016. Those are Government promises; it should pay for them. [
.] It has certainly not done so. Last year, there were £400 million of commitments and a £253 million increase in funding, which amounts to £147 million of real cuts. That is the problem.
The teachers’ pension: promise it, deliver it. Additional needs support: promise it, deliver it. Teachers’ policy intervention: promise it, deliver it. Early years education, which is something that I strongly support: promise it, deliver it. The Government should not expect local government to pick up the tab for the promises that it makes. The Government is happy to take the credit for such things; it should deliver as well.
It would also help if the SNP Government gave a clear indication to local authorities as to what they are expected to do on council tax. There was a clear indication last year about the cap, and there needs to be a clear indication this year, so that local government can plan. Local government needs to know when there will be clarity and whether there will be a cap. Will local government get proper freedom to take decisions to increase or reduce the tax if it wants to? That should be local government’s choice, and it should be able to take the political flak that comes from making it, instead of having the decision imposed on it by the SNP Government.
We all aspire to have multiyear budgets, and the SNP Government says that it would love to have them. However, we do not have the certainty of multiyear budgets and the forward look that they provide, which would allow local government to plan for the future. If we expect local government to deliver long-term, sustainable solutions rather than deal with the short-termism that it is forced to adopt now as a result of the SNP Government’s approach to local government financing, we need a long-term budget process and the freedom that comes with it. We also need some of the stuff that Andy Wightman talked about, such as a proper fiscal framework for local government, to give it some certainty.
The most important thing that the SNP Government needs to do is follow through on the promises that it has made on behalf of local government rather than expect local government to pick up the tab and make the cuts. Sure enough, we know, from being in the chamber and from listening to the ministers on the front bench, that as soon as cuts are made by any council in any part of the country, it is the council’s fault, not the SNP’s fault. The Government needs to live up to its responsibilities, follow through on its promises and make sure that those promises are properly funded.
When it comes to investing in our future, there really cannot be any investment more important than the education of our children and grandchildren. Of course, they are the future in and of themselves, but it is to them that we will look to shape the future, so equipping them with the knowledge and skills that they will need to do that to the best of their ability is surely an imperative intergenerational responsibility that we must shoulder.
It is not only about the jobs that they will do, although it is partly about those. It is about creating a generation of fully engaged and empowered citizens who learn to respect our planet and who can respond to the climate emergency in a way that past generations have clearly failed to do.
We devolve the delivery of school education to our local authorities, and it thereby becomes the greatest responsibility that they have. School education is the biggest of all locally delivered services, commanding more than £5 billion of local authority resources and serving almost 700,000 pupils. It is right that our schools are organised and funded locally, because local councils are by far the best placed to understand the needs and realities of the communities that our schools serve.
In my constituency, there is one primary school of more than 1,000 pupils and, only a couple of miles away, another that, when I last checked, had 25 pupils.
Both are critical to the health, viability and sustainability of the towns and communities that they serve. The idea that someone who is not based in East Lothian would understand exactly what their very different needs are is ridiculous.
As night follows day, if schools command such a significant proportion of councils’ expenditure and council budgets are cut, schools will hurt—and they do.
As we have heard, councils have faced budget reductions proportionately several times greater than anything that ministers have faced in their budgets, and the results can readily be seen in schools. The amount that we spend each year on primary pupils has fallen by £427 per head since 2010; in secondary schools, spending per pupil is down by £209. There are 2,853 fewer teachers than we had 13 years ago, and, not surprisingly, the pupil teacher ratio is higher than it was in 2010. The average primary class is now 23.5 pupils—up from 22.8—and, as Alex Rowley said, many primary pupils are in classes of 30 or even more.
For context, it would be interesting to recognise that, although Mr Gray has painted a very gloomy picture of education, school spending per pupil was £6,571 in Scotland compared with £5,994 in England. We have 7,495 teachers for every 100,000 pupils compared with 5,545 in England and 5,038 in Labour-run Wales.
Does he not concede that there is a void of context around the issue?
Teachers have seen not just other teachers vanish; cuts have hit their support staff, too. Let us take science technicians, for example, who are crucial for the teaching of the critical practical subjects in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. There are 333 fewer of them in our schools than there were 10 years ago, which is a cut of almost 30 per cent. Perhaps worst of all, although the proportion of pupils with identified additional support needs has reached an all-time high of 31 per cent, the number of specialist ASN teachers has fallen to the lowest level ever.
Murdo Fraser is correct in saying that one of the loudest complaints we hear from COSLA is about the extensive ring fencing by the Scottish Government of much of the resource that councils receive. It is also correct that, before John Swinney was the SNP minister with responsibility for education, he used to boast that he would not ring fence funds. Now that Mr Swinney is the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, he has presided over many millions of pounds of ring-fenced resources in the shape of attainment challenge funding and the pupil equity fund, to which the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government referred in her opening speech.
We support the objective of that funding, which is to provide additional support for those pupils who face particular barriers to educational achievement, but the keyword is “additional”. The deployment of funding to close the attainment gap at exactly the moment when councils’ core funding is being slashed could only ever undermine its additionality. In all practical terms, it is clear that much of it is being used to plug gaps.
Indeed, if we look at the nine attainment challenge authorities, which have received the largest share of the funding, we find that, between 2010-11 and 2017-18, there was an average real-terms cut of £406 for every child in primary school and £209 for every pupil in secondary school. The additional funding has not mitigated the effect of the cuts to core funding. There are educational, pedagogic and curricular issues in our schools—falling pass rates, national testing and the narrowing curriculum—and they must be addressed. They are debated, albeit in Opposition time since the Government has refused to bring debates about schools to the chamber.
The truth is that the Government’s central failure in schools is the failure to get the financial fundamentals right and ensure that our schools have enough teachers with enough support and enough resources to do the best job that they possibly can for our children and grandchildren. That would be investing in our future, but to do that we must have fair funding for local councils and the critical local services that they provide.
As a member of the Local Government and Communities Committee, I am pleased to speak in this debate, in which we will, no doubt, rehearse many of the arguments that will be made during the progress of the Scottish budget.
We all agree that local government is hugely important when it comes to the delivery of essential public services across Scotland and that those services are under strain, so I thank Labour for bringing the debate to the chamber. However, it is on rocky ground in criticising the SNP Government, given its record in office in Scotland and, currently, in Wales.
Scotland’s 2019-20 resource grant is 9 per cent smaller than it was a decade ago, when the last Labour UK Government began austerity with a £500 million cut to Scotland’s budget. Who does not recall Labour chancellor Alistair Darling’s warning in 2010 that the Labour Government cuts, if Labour was re-elected, would be “deeper and tougher” than Margaret Thatcher’s? The Tories continued austerity when they came into power in 2010, supported by Lib Dems who were desperate for office, although the coalition’s initial cut of 36 per cent to Scotland’s capital allocation was lower than Mr Darling’s planned 40 per cent cut.
More recently, if we look at the seven-year period that Sarah Boyack focuses on in her motion, we can see that, excluding health, Scotland’s resource budget has fallen by 7.8 per cent. The 7 per cent fall in the local government budget therefore shows how Scottish ministers have tried to protect it, and that budget reductions are not disproportionate in that context.
Some of us recall 2007, when Labour, in Wendy Alexander’s infamous hungry caterpillar speech, called for 3 per cent cuts to local government budgets year on year. Ms Boyack was part of the Labour front bench that supported that view, and Ms Alexander was elected Labour leader a year later, unopposed—a clear indication of support for her policies.
Pressures on devolved matters such as health and wellbeing and social care are rising with our ageing population, leading to health spending increasing to more than 43 per cent of Holyrood’s budget, having been around a third at the start of devolution. Meanwhile, health resource consequentials were cut by £55 million in 2019-20. Each year, the Scottish Government has to do progressively more with less.
Despite the aforementioned trend, the SNP Government managed to increase funding for councils by £310 million to £11.2 billion—a 3.1 per cent cash increase on the year before. Meanwhile, over the past seven years, which is the period mentioned in the motion, the Tories cut English council budgets by 22.8 per cent, driving some of their own councils to bankruptcy, such as those in Surrey and Northamptonshire, while Labour cut local authority budgets in Wales by 11.5 per cent. Indeed, Pembrokeshire County Council was also driven to near bankruptcy.
In my area, North Ayrshire, the SNP Government allocated capital and resource totalling 8.3 per cent more in 2019-20 than in the previous year, including attainment funding and pupil equity funding.
I am glad that the member has mentioned Glasgow, because I was a councillor there when Labour cut 9 per cent—£167 million—from the city’s budget in a single year and put 3,000 workers on the dole. It seems that, for the Labour Party, it is the singer and not the song that matters. It resents cuts only when it is not implementing them. [
Mr Findlay would do better to listen to the answer to a question that he asked. It is a bit silly of him to heckle the answer, because how is he going to hear what I say?
North Ayrshire Council would have had more to spend on services if it was not for Labour’s cynical PFI policy—a financial disaster that landed us with a huge debt by building four schools with a construction cost of £81 million. Repayments total an eye-watering £401 million over the 30 years to 2037, after which the schools will not even be owned by the council. As a result, North Ayrshire Council continues to make progressively higher payments of more than £1 million a month—money that could and should be invested in local services.
To add insult to injury, in 2014, Labour council leaders suggested the allocation of £5.1 million a year less to North Ayrshire Council in favour of Glasgow—a decision that they later hastily rescinded. In 2017, North Ayrshire’s minority Labour administration wanted to borrow £72 million not to enhance capital infrastructure, build a new school or fix potholes, but to buy a 47-year-old shopping centre in Irvine, oblivious to the on-going decline in retail. In 2018, the administration suggested hiking council tax by 12.5 per cent across every single band in one go. With the reality bearing no resemblance to the rhetoric, it is no wonder that Labour support in North Ayrshire has fallen to less than 14 per cent.
Ring fencing, which was mentioned earlier in the debate, was a favourite policy of the Labour-Lib Dem Scottish Executive from 2007—so much so that when the SNP came to office ring fencing amounted to £2.7 billion a year, in 60 separate local authority budget lines. The now-legendary historic concordat between local government and the SNP Government scrapped ring fencing, but it has now reappeared, to the tune of £900 million. That is a third of what it was under the Lab-Lib Executive, but it is causing consternation among those with short memories.
Of course, the reason for the reintroduction of ring fencing is that when ministers gave additional funding to deliver specific policies, such as maintaining teacher numbers, some councils ignored the policy and spent the money elsewhere; their party colleagues would then attack the SNP Government for not maintaining teacher numbers.
The ring fencing that currently occurs is done to deliver agreed policies through partnership working, such as that to provide 1,140 hours of free childcare from August.
Are Opposition members seriously suggesting that we end up with a patchwork of early years services in order to allow local authorities to spend elsewhere?
Each year, when witnesses give the committee their evidence on the local government budget, I ask them more or less the same questions. If local government is to receive additional funding, from where should it come—the NHS or other areas of the Scottish budget, or increased taxes, and, if the latter, who should pay and how much?
Occasionally, we are told that local government needs what is described as a basket of additional powers, yet there is real reticence about what those powers should be and who should pay more. As we know, even when Opposition parties suggest new powers—as Labour-run councils have done in Edinburgh and Glasgow in relation to workplace parking charges, for example—they are not above denouncing the Scottish Government if it introduces them.
There is nothing easier in politics than saying that more money is needed for health, justice, transport or, indeed, local government. To be taken seriously, the advocates for giving more must say how much more, and from where and from whom it should come. Sadly, I have heard nothing about that in the debate. The Government’s budget statement is 15 days away, so there is still time for the Opposition parties to present concrete, funded ideas, rather than doing their annual Oliver Twist impression, asking, “Please, sir—can I have some more?”
No Opposition spokesperson has yet suggested how local authorities will benefit from the impact of the Greens’ amendment 9 to the Non-Domestic Rates (Scotland) Bill, which was agreed to at stage 2 and which will cost up to £308 million in reliefs. In North Ayrshire, 3,040 properties will lose out unless at least one Opposition party sees sense, backs the SNP Government and reverses its position when the bill is considered at stage 3. That would ensure that such businesses can survive and thrive in the months and years ahead.
We are just a couple of weeks away from the latest Scottish Government budget—the latest charade in which the finance secretary moans about his lot. It will be the latest kick in the teeth for local government, with SNP back benchers and front benchers screaming, “Nothing to see here, guv—it’s a fair deal.” It will also be the latest dance with Patrick Harvie—or maybe not; perhaps it will be a dance with Murdo Fraser this time.
Labour is right to bring the debate to the chamber. We have already heard excellent contributions from Sarah Boyack and Iain Gray. Local government has been the poor relation of the public sector under the SNP. That is a little bizarre, because the finance secretary’s local government background is unquestionably solid. He knows better than anyone what councils do, and he should know that they need to be properly funded.
The recent Accounts Commission report, which I mentioned in an intervention on the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government, should have made sobering reading for the SNP. Scottish Government revenue funding remains the most significant source of councils’ income. It increased by 1.1 per cent in cash terms in 2018-19, which represents a 0.7 per cent decrease in real terms. Since 2013-14, Scottish Government funding to councils has reduced by 7.6 per cent in real terms. The cabinet secretary could not answer that point when I asked her about it earlier.
Increasingly, councils are having to draw on their revenue reserves. In 2018-19, the net draw on such reserves was £45 million. Over the past three years, 23 councils have reduced their general fund reserves. As we heard much about earlier in the debate, an increasing proportion of council budgets is committed to national policy initiatives. That reduces councils’ flexibility to decide how to plan and prioritise the use of funding to respond to local priorities.
There was more worrying news on integration joint boards, for which such difficulty is now an annual event. A majority of IJBs struggled to achieve break-even in 2018-19 and either recorded a deficit or had to rely on additional funding from partners. Around one third of IJBs failed to agree a budget with their partners for the start of the 2019-20 financial year—extraordinary stuff. Medium-term financial planning is improving, but no IJB had a financial plan that extended for more than five years, and more than one third of IJB senior staff changed during 2018-19.
COSLA has said that the wellbeing of our citizens is at risk in this year’s budget. COSLA resources spokesperson, my good friend Councillor Gail Macgregor, said—
I am talking about this year’s budget, of course, but I welcome the cabinet secretary getting together with Mr Fraser to discuss his well-reasoned proposals.
Councillor Macgregor said:
“Wellbeing is about much more than investing in the NHS—it’s about investing in the wider public health of this country—the everyday services that enhance the lives of individuals, families and communities.
Dealing with the consequences of not investing in preventative services will cost much, much more than investing now.”
Councillor Macgregor’s colleague, COSLA president Councillor Alison Evison, said:
“Local Government is the sphere of Government closest to Scotland’s citizens. Sadly however, whichever way you want to dress it up, the reality is that in recent budgets the Scottish Government has chosen to overlook the essential services that communities rely on day in day out.”
On 6 January, Councillor Evison went further, warning that
“years without fair funding for Scottish Local Government has meant that councils’ budgets are at breaking point.”
As Murdo Fraser said, we are going to get far more money—£1.2 billion—from Barnett consequentials. That is an embarrassment of riches. There really is no need to increase taxes. The Scottish Government has the money to help local government.
Councillor Evison went on to say:
“the cracks are starting to show. In every indicator whether it is economic growth, tackling climate change, wellbeing or child poverty, cuts to council budgets will mean targets are missed.
This goes well beyond money. This goes to the heart of our communities. We now have a situation where communities are losing their sense of pride as social isolation rises due to community projects and initiatives being cut.”
We have an opportunity to get things right this year. Derek Mackay does not have to pirouette with Patrick; he can impress us all and foxtrot with Fraser. [
.] Mr Fraser likes the idea.
We have asked for local government’s cash to go up, and we want councils to be given an extra £10 million to help tackle homelessness. Those are reasonable requests—[
.] Kate Forbes is still thinking about my dancing ideas.
Our requests can help to cut out the growth deniers in the Greens. The Labour motion, so ably put across by Sarah Boyack, sums things up very well indeed.
If anything, more and more will be put on to local government in the years ahead and, quite simply, they need the resources to do their job.
This is a debate about local government ostensibly, but what is not in the motion is just as important, and what is not in the motion is the NHS. It is impossible to have an honest discussion about local government finance without putting it in the context of overall spending and health spending in particular. Unlike the Labour Party in Scotland, the Scottish Government went to the electorate in 2016 promising above-inflation increases in NHS spending. The local government finance settlement has to be seen in that context. The Scottish Government has kept its promise on the NHS while also facing London-imposed cuts to the rest of its budget.
On preventative care, does Ms McAlpine not accept that, because of the failure to spend on the care that is provided through local government services, people end up having to go into hospital or being unable to leave hospital, which costs the NHS an inordinate amount of money? That money is really needed by the front-line services that I am sure the member supports.
I think that everybody in the Parliament supports preventative care, which is delivered by the NHS and by local authorities. That is why we integrated health and social care and have provided a generous financial package to support it.
Once the above-inflation increases for the NHS are excluded, the Scottish Government’s budget between 2013-14 and 2019-20 reduced by 7.8 per cent in real terms. Once health is taken out of the equation, the real-terms reduction for local government over the same period is significantly lower than the cut to the Scottish budget as a whole, although, this year, local government received a £310 million real-terms increase.
Local government does a very important job, which is why it continues to receive fair funding, but the only way to substantially further increase the funds that are allocated to it would be to take money away from health. That would be wrong because, in 2016, people in Scotland voted for an SNP manifesto pledge to increase the health revenue budget by £500 million more than inflation by the end of the current session of Parliament, which means that we will increase it by £2 billion in total. It would be completely wrong to break that promise to the NHS, and I am sure that the Opposition parties would be the first to call us out if we did so. That would mean breaking the promises to transform primary care, to increase the number of general practitioners and nurses who work in our communities, to invest £200 million to expand the Golden Jubilee hospital and establish five new elective treatment centres, to transform mental health through the provision of an additional £150 million and to invest £100 million in improving the prevention, early diagnosis and treatment of cancer.
That is what people voted for in 2016. If Labour members want to cut that NHS allocation and instead give the funding to councils, they should say which NHS improvements they would abandon. Should cancer care be cut to provide funding for councils?
Joan McAlpine hits the nail on the head in describing one of the problems. Resources might well be going into the acute side of the health service, but they are not being transferred to the community care side. Therefore, the preventative approach that the cabinet secretary talked about has not worked. We need to put resources into primary care as well as the acute side.
I repeat the point that I made in response to Mr Rowley’s colleague Sarah Boyack. We all support preventative care, and we are investing in it. I have just mentioned the £100 million cancer programme, a large part of which is about preventative care. In addition, we have integrated health and social care, and there is a generous funding package behind that.
At this point, I should say that, although the NHS is the priority, local government is treated far better in Scotland than it is elsewhere in the UK. COSLA’s head of resources, Vicky Bibby, told the Parliament’s Local Government and Communities Committee:
“The situation in England is very different. I do not think that anyone in Scottish local government or the Scottish Government would want to replicate what has happened in a number of councils in England. I am thankful that in Scotland we have taken a quite different approach. We have co-signed the national performance framework and we are prioritising inclusive growth.”
At the same meeting, COSLA’s spokesperson for resources, Councillor Gail Macgregor, said:
“it is evident that councils are collapsing in England and Wales. We would absolutely not want that level of cuts to Scottish budgets.”—[
Official Report, Local Government and Communities Committee,
9 January 2019; c 16, 15.]
Of course, Councillor Macgregor was speaking for COSLA, not her political party, but it is surely worth pointing out that she was elected as a Scottish Conservative.
When we look at the comparative figures for Scottish councils and their counterparts in England and Wales, we can see that Ms Bibby and Councillor Macgregor are absolutely correct: the budgets of councils in England are collapsing. In the period from 2013 to 2020, which is used in the Labour motion, Scottish local authorities have enjoyed a cash-terms revenue budget increase of 3.6 per cent, whereas English local authorities have faced a cash-terms revenue budget cut of 14.7 per cent. English council budgets have suffered an agonising real-terms cut of 22.8 per cent, which is almost four times the figure for Scottish council budgets over the same period.
Councillor Macgregor was absolutely right to warn the Local Government and Communities Committee that Tory-run England is not a country that we should seek to emulate. Although it is true that Scotland as a whole, including local government, has suffered as a result of Tory cuts, and that prioritising the NHS, despite the cuts, has led to pressure on other funding streams, last year’s settlement for councils in Scotland was extremely encouraging. The funding package of £11.2 billion for local authorities represented a real-terms increase of more than £310 million, as I said. The settlement included a number of very exciting initiatives that make a huge difference to people’s lives, such as the extension of free personal care for the under 65s, the £88 million to maintain the pupil teacher ratio and the new £50 million town centre fund.
We have heard a lot in the debate already about the wide range of statutory and lifeline services that local government delivers. Last week, COSLA warned that the wellbeing of Scotland’s citizens will be at risk if the Government again reduces the settlement to local government. With that warning on health and wellbeing in mind, I will use my time to focus on social care and alcohol and drug services.
Last week, I was struck by the words of Dr Donald Macaskill, the chief executive of Scottish Care, who said:
“Nothing else we do as a country matters as much as the degree to which we choose to care for the most vulnerable and those who need support.”
Social care is at the heart of communities, and the Scottish Government is rightly committed to supporting people to stay at home or in a homely setting, with maximum independence, for as long as possible. The integration of health and social care has long been supported by Scottish Labour, and we recognise the Government’s good intentions.
However, too many people are waiting too long for a care assessment of their needs and are then having a further long wait before a personalised care package is put in place. Last week, Stephen Smellie, who is from Unison’s social work issues group, said:
“The stress on staff, services and their service users is at breaking point. We need significant investment in Social Work Services to avoid a breakdown.”
That is a grim picture. As Sarah Boyack highlighted, unpaid carers who are doing their best to support family and friends who would otherwise fall through the cracks are under increasing pressure.
Delayed discharge remains a huge challenge for the NHS and is distressing for people and their families. Scottish Labour analysis shows that, since November 2014, more than 2.7 million days have been spent in hospital by people who were medically fit to leave. About three quarters of delays are linked to social care. Since Nicola Sturgeon became First Minister, that has cost the NHS more than £653 million, so it is a false economy. Despite SNP ministers pledging to abolish delayed discharge, we have ended up with a very expensive broken promise.
Social care should be a priority for this Government and for any Government. Instead, social care has been weakened and the pressure on the wider health service has exacerbated the problem. That is because of the political choice to underfund local government and then to pretend to everyone else that that is fair.
Integrating health and social care is the right thing to do, but we are not seeing the progress or pace of change that we need. Audit Scotland tells us that, and we all know it from seeing what is happening in our communities. Recently, a family in South Lanarkshire told me about the harrowing eight-week wait that they faced for a care package for their loved one. In fact, the family was from the cabinet secretary’s constituency.
When people eventually get the care that they need, it should be provided safely, with dignity at its heart, and there should be continuity. However, we hear far too many examples and anecdotes of different carers coming and going every day and of people being put to bed at 6 o’clock at night. That is not dignified or person-centred care.
Social care is a priority for Scottish Labour, which is why we will introduce a Scottish care service. We all agree that integrating health and social care is the right and smart thing to do, but the Government has botched the policy. It has failed to deliver transformation, it has cut corners on investment and it has failed to plan for the longer term.
In my remaining time, I make a plea on behalf of everyone in Scotland whose life has been touched in some way by drug and alcohol misuse and who has struggled to find help for themselves or for their family. Funding pressures have left barely any local service unscathed, but cuts to alcohol and drug services have had tragic consequences. In recent years, those services have had real-terms budget cuts of millions of pounds. That has led to a drastic fall in the number of residential rehab beds and a record number of drugs deaths. Unfortunately, the latest indication is that those deaths are rising. In Glasgow, which has a population of half a million, the number of residential rehab beds has reduced to 14. When I raised that recently with the Minister for Public Health, Sport and Wellbeing on behalf of Faces & Voices of Recovery UK, which had been campaigning on the issue, he rightly pointed to a degree of local decision making. However, a postcode lottery of budget cuts should not determine a person’s right to access treatment. We are talking about people’s right to live.
I will make some progress.
Although there is a debate in Government time next week on those issues, we need to get real about the services that people need. I hope that we will soon see safe consumption rooms in Scotland but let us not just blame the UK Government. Getting the service means that we also have to provide the right wraparound support, to ensure that the rooms are as effective as they can be.
Unison’s recent survey of social work staff is pertinent for social care and addiction services. Social work departments have been hollowed out. In reports from Unison members, 82 per cent say that their workload has got heavier in the past few years and 90 per cent say that they are considering leaving their jobs. That is serious.
I support the motion, because we must invest in communities and in early intervention to give everyone a fair chance and to avoid storing up problems for the future. We must support those who care and are cared for. We can do that by investing fairly in local government.
Before I start my speech, I will make a couple of comments on preventative spend. I agree with Sarah Boyack’s argument that we need to invest in preventative spending. In the previous parliamentary session, the Finance Committee looked at that. The challenge was where to disinvest from. Unless we have a lot of extra money, we have to take the money away before we can do the preventative spending. Effectively, we would have to take money away from accident and emergency departments to put more into community care, or we would have to stop building a new prison in order to invest and stop future overcrowding.
No, I do not think so.
Having been a councillor in Glasgow for 10 years, I feel a strong affinity with and commitment to local government. Most of our councillors are extremely hard-working and deserve our appreciation. As we come up to the budget in a few weeks’ time, various sectors argue that they need more money. That is not surprising; we expect everyone to do that. However, finances should not be allocated on the basis of who shouts loudest; nor should allocation be on the basis of those who have the most emotional appeal.
As a Parliament, we have a responsibility to allocate funds primarily according to the level of need. We should assess that need as objectively as possible. However, some of that is a matter of judgment; for example, is the NHS or local government more important? That is an impossible question to answer, and we should not ask it. Those two sectors do different things—sometimes in conjunction with each other. Both do hugely important things. They educate our children and look after them when they are sick; they provide care for our elderly folk in a hospital setting, at home or in a care home setting. We cannot say that one is more important than the other, yet we have to allocate resources between them.
I hope that Labour and the other Opposition parties will accept that allocating resources in a budget is not an easy or simple process.
To stand by and demand more money for local government today, more for the prison service tomorrow, more for transport the next day and more for the police service the day after that, is not logical and does not impress the public.
Most members of the public live within limited budgets and they understand that we also have to live within a limited budget. So, we can and should be more honest with the public that the money is not there to do all that we would like and that, as a country, we have to choose our priorities.
Is it also not important that the Government raises outstanding revenue? The social responsibility levy, which Parliament passed legislation on, could have raised £150 million if the Government had had the gumption to introduce it.
There are ways of raising more money, and I have said previously that I am open to increasing taxation. We have to be careful about how big a gap there is between us and the UK, but if our services are better, it would be justified. If there are sensible suggestions, we can be open to them, but we still have to set priorities even if there is more money from taxation or Westminster.
I have no problem with Labour arguing for
“fair funding settlements to local government” as the motion says, but I assume that Labour also wants fair funding settlements for other sectors.
If Labour feels that local government has not had enough money in recent years, perhaps it could tell us which sector has had too much. Is it the NHS, which is facing rising demand but has seen its funding more protected over a number of years?
The Conservative amendment is even less honest. At least Labour would, in principle, like to raise more tax in order to allow additional expenditure. We also know that the Conservatives want to cut tax, but their amendment also asks for at least inflationary increases. I wonder if they can tell us what the block grant is going to be next year.
If Mr Mason followed the briefings from the Fraser of Allander institute, he would know that it estimates that the block grant will increase by 2 per cent in real terms from this year to next. On that basis, there is no need either for tax increases or cuts in any spending.
It would be more helpful if Westminster would tell us what it will give us rather than other people making estimates.
I will move on to talk about Glasgow specifically and the allocation between the councils. Glasgow has traditionally received one of the highest allocations per head of the mainland authorities because of poverty, poor health, addiction, shorter life expectancy, and other similar issues.
Of course everyone wants more for their local area, and that is what we expect people to argue for. At this time of year, we usually hear complaints that some councils are getting less per head than others. Of course that is the case. It has to be the case. We must base the allocation of resources to councils on need, not on giving everyone the same. Parliament, together with COSLA, must look at the overall national picture. It would be a dereliction of duty to give everyone exactly the same. Allocation must be made according to need. I accept that measuring that need is not easy. We have a formula that could be improved, perhaps, but COSLA has to agree to that.
While I am talking about Glasgow, it is worth mentioning that it has had extra pressure on its budget because of the equal pay settlement. Perhaps we should remember why that happened. Labour was in power in Glasgow for many years, and it allowed many women in a range of jobs to be paid less than men for doing equivalent work. Labour fudged and delayed so that the problem multiplied. It took the SNP becoming the Administration less than three years ago to sort it out. [
Finally—I will not get applause for this—I want to put in a word for councillors. As I have said, most of them are extremely hard working and they pour themselves into their communities. I do not think that £17,470 is an adequate salary. All parties should agree to look at that, at least after May 2021.
In conclusion, let us absolutely support local government, but let us be realistic about how much money we actually have as we go into the budget process.
The Labour Party has raised an important topic today, as the issue of funding settlements is particularly salient. There is a certain amount in the motion to agree with. It is the case that council funding has not kept pace with increases in the block grant given to the Scottish Government. In fact, every single council faced unnecessary budget cuts—sometimes well over 3 per cent—in the previous financial year.
I have a fair amount of first-hand experience of this, and I remind colleagues that I am a councillor in Aberdeen. Coming from the north-east, I am extremely disappointed about how our region has been treated by this central-belt-first Government. Our councils have seen their funding cut at a rate equivalent to £100,000 every single day since 2018-19.
The Scottish Government tries to make the case that it is someone else’s fault when, in reality, the SNP has, since 2013, cut the local government revenue budget at a far deeper rate than that of the Scottish Government. So, when ministers and their foot soldiers stand up to portray this as Westminster’s fault, it is nothing short of an abdication of their responsibility.
Let us be real about the effect of the cuts. I will use the example of Aberdeen. In the previous budget, we were able to safeguard libraries, community learning centres, and school crossing patrols. Some of the alternative suggestions were staggering, and included £1.8 million being cut out of the health and social care partnership, or getting £1.1 million from a blanket 3 per cent increase, across the board, in all existing charges.
I should say that both of those suggestions came from the SNP—thankfully, we did not take it up on its offer.
There are structural changes in the local government funding settlement that could help to address some of the issues that we see today. Ring fencing of funding for Scottish Government initiatives has been identified as the root cause of many cuts in other areas. I accept that those are often projects that have to be delivered at a local level, but if the Scottish Government is insisting on those ideas, it should take greater responsibility for funding them.
Much is made of the protection of education and care budgets, which is fair enough, but when that comes at the expense of 34 per cent of planning spend, 15 per cent of roads spend, and 10 per cent of environment spend, there needs to be a rethink about where the money for headline Government promises comes from. By accepting a fairer share of that responsibility, the Scottish Government could aid the provision of local government services across the country.
Much has been made of the idea of council tax reform. I accept that there is no cross-party consensus on the optimal way to address that, but a bit of effort would not hurt. As far as council tax goes, no one is expecting the SNP to reinvent the wheel or to stick to its original manifesto commitment—chance would be a fine thing, after all. However, from the party that promised to scrap the council tax, I think that something over and above a toothless commission with no achievements to its name might just be a start. Currently, the only options available to struggling councils are cuts, spending reserves, or raising taxes. I do not think that a fair settlement for local government means telling it that it can have more money but it will have to tax everything from people to parking spaces in order to get it. It is equally unacceptable to force councils to raid their reserves to make ends meet.
In the past three years, 23 local authorities have been forced to dip into their savings for day-to-day spending. I am afraid that that is a massive red flag that ministers have either missed or ignored. I hope that the points raised regarding the very real challenges faced by local authorities will not go unheeded. Ministers have the chance to alleviate some of those pressures in the upcoming budget. Councils, and ultimately, the people for whom they provide vital services, need politicians across the board to approach that in a sensible, level-headed way.
It was recently brought to my attention that, in the index of social and economic wellbeing, as published in
, Scotland has fallen by five places into the bottom half. To me, that reflects just how badly the SNP Government has been handling things.
That is why we in the Conservatives have extended an offer to the SNP in order to pass its budget in a couple of weeks, without the threat of whatever new taxes the Greens have recently dreamed up. Part of that offer includes significant measures to help grow our economy and expand the tax base, enabling more revenue to be collected without raising rates. We also want the overall funding settlement for local authorities to be addressed directly. If the Government increased core funding by at least inflation, while fully funding all additional commitments, local authorities would be far less reliant on dipping into their reserves or cutting services to make ends meet.
The finance secretary will have a couple of weeks to examine our proposals, and I hope that he does so before he produces his draft budget in early February. Local authorities up and down the country have been consistent in telling us that more of the same from the Scottish Government will not do the trick any more. Councils are struggling to make ends meet, and that comes only at the expense of the vital front-line services that they do their best to provide. It is not good enough to cut council funding to the bone and blame someone else. It is not good enough to leave councils to decide between spending their savings or cutting posts. There is the time, and there is the money. I hope that in the budget, ministers will choose to invest in local government and all the good that it can do.
On a point of order, Presiding Officer. Would you be minded to provide the 30 seconds necessary for Mr Mason to clarify any further sources of income that he has beyond his parliamentary salary?
The short answer to that is no, because it is up to individual members what they wish to declare in the chamber, and that is often related to their entry in the register of interests.
Just for the record, I say that I have absolutely nothing to declare. I like to think that my speech will be of interest, but I have nothing to declare—I got that in before Neil Findlay said it.
One of the most disappointing aspects of politics in this place is that parties continue to suggest spending without costings. Honestly, those parties will never be seen as a serious alternative Government if they continue in that way. Do not get me wrong—I used to be the leader of the opposition in Glasgow, and I know how easy it is to stand up, demand everything, ignore cost and have great fun doing it. However, I always ensured that we produced a costed alternative budget. Until those other parties play their full part in the budget process, this debate is just about grandstanding or carping from the sidelines, no matter how eloquent it is, as Sarah Boyack definitely was. We have had no serious proposals and no suggestions about where funding will come from; we have just had a list of wants, which none of us is likely to disagree with—with the possible exception of the Tories, I suppose.
As we have heard, local government plays a vital role in tackling some of the defining challenges that Scottish working people face. Indeed, as the Labour motion references, our councils can be and very often are at the forefront in the fight to address climate change. Scotland is leading the world in tackling the climate emergency, and Glasgow as a city is leading the way in Scotland. Glasgow City Council aims to be the first city in the UK to reach net zero emissions by 2030. Despite what Sarah Boyack suggested, Glasgow has introduced that ambitious plan, led by the city convener for sustainability and carbon reduction, Councillor Anna Richardson, and the city’s low-emission zone has now entered its second year. The council has been able to do that while working under what are, according to some other parties, devastating restrictions.
Under the LEZ, at least 40 per cent of bus journeys through the city centre this year will be required to meet tough emissions standards. Bus operators have invested in their fleets to ensure that they meet the target, with FirstBus launching a number of fully electric buses earlier this month. The city’s LEZ aims to have 100 per cent of buses meeting the standard by 2022.
As the city gears up for the 26th conference of the parties, or COP26, it is encouraging to see the collaboration between the Government, the city council and transport partners to further incentivise public transport as a convenient and sustainable alternative to the car. That collaboration is crucial if we are to get the best out of every single part of the system, including local government, national Government and other partners.
Local authorities tell us that they want greater responsibility for their finances and to be less dependent on grants from central Government. The Tories and Labour have called for more localism and for reforms to make local government more accountable to its local communities. Those calls are perfectly sensible. At a meeting of the citizens assembly on Saturday, Richard Leonard said that politicians can and should co-operate on the issue of climate change. However, it is utterly hypocritical, and it makes no sense, for Labour to say that our councils can be key players in tackling the climate emergency when, at the first opportunity, Labour refused to support the workplace parking levy.
The parliamentary Scottish Labour Party might not support that levy, but many of Labour’s council colleagues across Scotland do. It is a discretionary power that is now available to our councils, which, along with a series of other measures, will help to reduce congestion, improve air quality and create a healthier environment. While the Labour Party talks a good game about empowering community, the SNP gets on with the job by delivering the most significant empowerment of local authorities since devolution.
As we are talking about local government finance, it would be remiss of me not to mention the equal pay issue, which John Mason talked about in detail. I remind members that Labour spent £2 million on defending its indefensible pay scheme in court and that dealing with the issue will cost the SNP administration in Glasgow £548 million. Last year, the leader of Glasgow City Council said that it is likely to cost the city about £25 million annually for “years to come”.
Let us not be taken in by words about what we must do; let us talk about how to get the finances in place. Every time that other parties want to give more money to local government, let us talk about where they would get that money from. There is nowhere else that they will get it from, except the health service.
We talk about early intervention, which I completely support, but we cannot have preventative spend without taking money from somewhere else, as John Mason said. We need extra money or we have to forget about doing operations so that we can put that money into early intervention and prevention. We will see the results in 10 or 15 years’ time, but, in the meantime, your granny will not get her hip operation and all the other things that need to be done will not get done.
There has to be realism and we have to work together on this. We should not play cheap politics with it. Do not get me wrong—I have been told that I am pretty good at cheap politics at times, but this is too serious an issue to play cheap politics with.
I see that I am coming to the end of my time, but I want to talk a bit about this, because it is important to me. We are facing further difficulties this year because of the delay to the UK budget, which was caused by our friends the Tories, who have completely ignored Scotland and our local authorities’ need to set their budgets for the year ahead.
I return to my opening comments. The onus is on every party to act responsibly with regard to next month’s budget bill. If they have asks, they must identify funding. Perhaps, in the future, Labour will work with the Scottish Government instead of holding to the principle that it will not work with us unless it absolutely has to. Let us remember who really caused the austerity that led to the cuts to Scotland’s budget: the Tories.
COSLA’s recent report on the upcoming budget, “Invest in Essential Services”, needs to act as a wake-up call to the Government. The report lays bare the financial crisis that councils around Scotland are facing as they have had to make £2.1 billion-worth of cash cuts and savings since 2012.
The report clearly shows that the debates in council chambers are about not just which services to trim but which services to scrap altogether. It highlights the remarkable job that our council staff do to keep as many services going as possible at a time when their resources and morale are being ground down day in, day out by the tsunami of cuts that are being inflicted on them by the Government.
It is an insult to those hard-working staff who serve our communities every day that the SNP and the Greens keep claiming that local government has received a fair settlement, yet 40,000 jobs have been axed by our councils since 2007.
Just as the Tories’ political choice of austerity has been devastating for our communities, so, too, have the political choices of the SNP Government in its budgets. It is an undeniable fact that Tory austerity has meant a 2 per cent cut in funding to the Scottish Government between 2013-14 and 2019-20, but the SNP’s budgets have turbocharged that austerity by imposing a 7 per cent cut on our councils.
The Government was right to do that, but it was wrong when it ensured that people on £140,000 a year received a tax cut in the budget last year; it was wrong when it set up a private finance initiative contract costing £1.4 million a month for the Royal hospital for children and young people in Edinburgh, which is not even open; and it will be wrong if it spends hundreds of millions of pounds in this budget on an independence referendum that nobody in this country wants.
Every day in our communities, we see the impact of the choices that Kate Forbes and others have made. I see that impact in Dumfries and Galloway. Since 2010, the council’s budget has been cut by 12.6 per cent compared with a 3.8 per cent reduction in the Scottish Government’s budget in that time. As a result, the council has been forced to make £106 million-worth of savings. Every year, it becomes more difficult to protect key services.
At the end of last year, the council began consulting on the latest unpalatable options from officers for cuts—cuts that were caused by this Government. The options included reducing subject choices in secondary schools, cutting road maintenance and transport budgets, a further fall in library budgets, new restrictions on access to music tuition, changes to social work staffing—the council’s report described that as “high risk”—and a 30 per cent cut in support for the region’s iconic festivals and events strategy.
If, as the SNP Government claims in its motion, there is a real-terms increase in funding for councils, why are SNP councillors being forced to consult on cuts such as that? Those councillors have had to reduce teaching posts at a time when a third of Scottish children are leaving primary school without attaining the expected levels of literacy and numeracy, and they have reduced the amount of leisure facilities when a third of Scotland’s schoolchildren are obese.
Despite that stark reality, the SNP Government claims in its amendment to have delivered a real-terms increase in funding for councils, knowing full well that that funding does not scratch the surface of the additional burdens that it has imposed on our councils. As the COSLA report clearly shows, the proportion of council budgets that is ring fenced for specific Government projects has almost doubled since 2013-14. Coupled with growing demand, that has limited councils’ freedom to invest where they believe investment is needed, and it has created a perfect storm when it comes to unprotected areas.
One such area is transport. Under the SNP, council transport spend has fallen by a quarter, with both revenue and capital spending in decline. Although council funding fell by 7.5 per cent in real terms over the past five years, the cut in council spending on local roads fell by 26 per cent. Last year alone, local government spending on transport was almost £300 million lower than in 2007-08. That means that £300 million less is being spent on maintaining our roads and pavements and on supporting vital public transport links. It is no wonder that there is a £1.8 billion repairs backlog for our local roads and that bus passenger numbers have collapsed by over 100 million since 2007.
If we are serious about climate change, we need to get serious about supporting public transport and, in particular, our bus services. That support is key to reducing emissions from transport, which continues to be Scotland’s most polluting sector, but it is key to more than that. Supporting bus services is about supporting communities and our economy, connecting people to work, education and healthcare and allowing them to socialise. Instead of consulting on whether to remove Labour’s successful older people’s bus pass for anyone aged between 60 and 65, the Government should have been consulting on how to extend that scheme to more and younger people.
The Government should be further extending it to young people, starting with modern apprentices, as it promised. So far, it has failed to do so. It has also cut the yearly income per journey for our bus companies, which is one of the reasons why, right across S cotland, under this Government, the bus network is being dismantled route by route.
Thanks to Labour’s amendments, the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019 gives our councils a range of new powers relating to bus services, including, crucially, the ability to run services directly or by setting up municipal bus companies. That new power has the potential to transform local bus services by ensuring they are run for the communities that they serve and allowing councils to get the best possible value for money by returning profits back to the public purse and not to the shareholders of the big bus companies.
However, as Sarah Boyack highlighted, that power is meaningless without the resources to meet the up-front costs of setting up those bus services. To reverse plummeting passenger numbers, we need our local councils to have not only the power to run bus services but the funding to rebuild our fragile bus network.
The forthcoming budget needs to give local authorities those resources. It needs to put an end to cuts to our councils and give them fair funding. The SNP and the Greens are good at rhetoric when it comes to ending austerity, but, as the debate has shown and as the facts have exposed, they are all talk. It is our lifeline council services and those who rely on them that are paying the price.
Once again, Labour has lodged a motion that, in essence, it is very difficult to argue with. The bulk of the text outlines the important objectives that local authorities deliver: preparing our young people for life through local authority-run schools and looking after our elderly population with dignity at heart. The motion also rightly mentions the importance of local government in helping us to tackle climate change.
Not a single member here will disagree on the importance of the role that our local authorities play in many aspects of our constituents’ lives and in delivering on the national priorities that we decide in this Parliament. Then, however, the motion replays the standard Labour tune that we hear week after week in the Parliament: the constant call for the Scottish Government to give more money to whichever public sector organisation is being discussed. It is a line that plays well: “We need more money for our schools, our hospitals and our councils”.
I am not sure that Mr Findlay’s interventions have added much to the debate, so I will decline.
Taken individually, those asks are hard for anyone to disagree with and they generate good press headlines along the lines of “Labour calls on Sturgeon to do more for—” fill in the gap. We will probably see that sort of thing in the papers tomorrow.
What never happens—certainly not in the time that I have been in the Parliament—is that one Labour member stands up and tells us where that money should come from. Year after year, Labour fails to put its budget proposals to the chamber and the Labour leadership declines a meeting to argue its case with the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work ahead of the Scottish budget proposals.
There was the notable exception of Alex Rowley, who broke ranks last year and put his asks to Derek Mackay, only to be hauled back by Richard Leonard, who, I believe, has never put together an alternative Scottish budget in all his time as Scottish Labour leader.
It is easy to call for more money and to say that local councils need a bigger settlement. What is hard is making sure that our local authorities get an increased settlement from a limited block grant that is dictated to us by another Government, and protecting Scotland’s public services against the backdrop of the austerity policies of a Tory Government that have undoubtedly impacted on poverty levels and the wellbeing of our people, which puts extra strain on those public services. Further, when we mitigate those policies, often on a moral basis, that money needs to come from somewhere. So, what do we cut to give local authorities more funding? Money for early years care expansion? Money for free personal care for the elderly? Do we not go ahead with Frank’s law? Do we bring in tuition fees for our students?
The hardest thing of all for a devolved Government is not having the full suite of powers that would enable us to protect ourselves fully from the impact of pernicious Tory policies, such as powers over employment law, which, I believe, Richard Leonard still has not agreed to join the First Minister in asking for, despite the fact that he gets to his feet practically every week to complaining about some aspect of it. Labour members like to call for things, but when it comes to actually doing something about it, they are silent.
Of course, there are Labour group members who are former Government ministers and who have had to manage budgets in the past, so they know the score. However, to my recollection, when Labour was in power, it underinvested in our public services. Sometimes, money from the block grant was unspent and it could not be rolled over into the next year.
Things such as the free bus travel scheme and free personal care for the elderly were introduced under Scottish Labour. When Gordon Brown was Chancellor of the Exchequer, we hugely increased the amount of money that was available to the Scottish Parliament and it was spent wisely.
I agree that tough decisions must be made but, earlier, David Stewart mentioned a way of raising money that the Scottish Government could act on now and, in my summing up, I specified where we would support more revenue coming to the Scottish Government, using the existing powers.
I am delighted to hear that, in summing up, Sarah Boyack will reverse the trend and I look forward to hearing where the money will come from to fund all her asks. However, I remember that there has been underspend in the past, and it is no wonder that, when the SNP came to power, we had to embark on a school-building programme, make investments in the health estate, build affordable houses and improve our transport infrastructure—which was particularly woeful in my area and is only now getting the attention that it badly needs.
When we are talking about policy and plans, it is entirely reasonable to look at Labour policy in the devolved nation where it holds power. When we do that, we see that, in Labour-controlled Wales, there has been an 11.5 per cent real-terms cut to local authorities.
We have a budget coming up. Will Labour leaders—including the one sitting behind Sarah Boyack—meet Derek Mackay to present their spending asks and, crucially, will they publish a detailed alternative budget that sets out Labour’s financial policy and plans for the citizens of Scotland to scrutinise, rather than going for the one-note, empty headlines that we have come to expect?
I welcome the chance to speak in the debate and thank the Labour Party for securing a debate on the issue, because the SNP is squeezing councils dry and expecting them to do more with less.
I will speak about North East Scotland, which is my region. In recent years, it has had successful investment opportunities, such as V&A Dundee. However, there are also many issues across the region that stem from a lack of local funding due to SNP budget cuts, which have left Scotland’s local authorities facing immense pressure. As with many SNP policies, North East Scotland has been hit hard. The general revenue grant for councils in the north-east, including Angus Council, which Tom Mason mentioned, has been cut at a rate that is equivalent to £100,000 a day between 2018-19 and 2019-20.
Local government is at the centre of our communities. For sustainable and positive change, local authorities must receive a fair funding settlement. However, the Fraser of Allander institute predicts a total reduction of £1 billion in local government revenue funding between 2016-17 and 2020-21.
There have been positive investment opportunities in Dundee and North East Scotland. As I mentioned, V&A Dundee has had a very positive effect on the city. Its economic impact was more than twice that first anticipated, bringing an extra £21 million to Dundee’s economy and more than £50 million further afield across Scotland during the 12 months since the museum’s opening in September 2018. The extra cash has supported the equivalent of 696 jobs in Dundee and 2,143 across Scotland.
Although praise is obviously due for the £80 million museum, criticism has been levelled at a perceived lack of momentum in the wider waterfront regeneration project in Dundee. Against a backdrop of a spate of closures in the city, some local business owners have asked for clarity on the future of the regeneration plans. It is apparent that Dundee still has many funding issues and needs investment outwith the V&A and the waterfront.
According to Dundee City Council’s SNP leader, the council will face 10 years of catastrophic cuts. He claimed in August 2019 that
“All services will face cuts of some kind” because the council needs to come up with £80 million over the next 10 years. He warned that people in all walks of life in Dundee would feel the effects of the cuts that the council would be forced to make in the years to come. Bigger class sizes, the closure of leisure centres and libraries and a reduction in road and property maintenance are some of the drastic plans that Dundee City Council chiefs are considering in a bid to balance the books. They need investment funds.
There are also important issues in Dundee regarding cuts to funding for alcohol and drug partnerships in Tayside. Across Scotland, there are 31 ADPs, which bring together local partners including health boards, local authorities, police and voluntary agencies. They are responsible for commissioning and developing local strategies for tackling problem alcohol and drug abuse and promoting recovery. Scotland now has a higher rate of drug-related deaths than the USA and every other European Union nation.
However, in July 2019, it emerged that funding for alcohol and drug partnerships in Tayside has been cut by more than 22 per cent since 2015, despite ministers acknowledging that the region now faces a “drug deaths ... emergency”. That prompted the Scottish Affairs Committee to accuse the Scottish Government of adding to the crisis in Dundee by cutting the funding. Services in Tayside have had their allocation cut from £5.4 million in 2014-15 to £4.2 million in 2018-19. Across Scotland, the allocation was reduced from a high of £69 million in 2015 to £54 million last year, prompting fears over the provision of vital services. The reduction has coincided with a 94 per cent rise in drug-induced deaths, with 1,187 lives lost in 2018 alone; 66 deaths in Dundee were attributed to that.
On top of that, it is shameful that Dundee is now ranked as the worst city in Scotland for females to grow up in. A study by Plan International UK shows the levels of regional inequality that still exist. The report’s analysis measured female rights and quality of life, using indicators such as child poverty, life expectancy and NEET status—that is, not in education, employment or training. Rose Caldwell, the chief executive of Plan International UK, said that policies at a national and local level are not going far enough to tackle inequality; however, that is not possible without adequate funding.
With regard to inequality, would Mr Bowman not concede that, when the UK Government wants to reduce social security spending by up to £3.7 billion in Scotland, that has a direct impact on inequality in this country? Will he demand of his party’s ministers in Westminster that they reverse some of those cuts?
I think that the Scottish Government has had long enough to deal with that issue here. I could go back and repeat what I said about Dundee being the worst place in the UK for young females to grow up in. I think that that is very embarrassing for the cabinet secretary, and I hope that she finds it so, too.
The Scottish Conservatives have set out our demands for the upcoming budget. Our primary asks include an inflation-linked increase in the core revenue budget, more hospital beds for drug addicts and a tax freeze. We do not want to see hard-working Scots footing the bill for the SNP’s inability to fund and invest in local government properly. That is why we are rejecting council tax rises, the car park tax and tourist taxes that will see the SNP palm off to hard-working Scots the responsibility to raise the level of funding that councils receive. An investment in local government is an investment to better the lives of the people of Scotland. It seems that that is too much to ask of the Scottish Government.
I am pleased to speak in the debate and I appreciate the Labour Party bringing it to the chamber.
We all know that our local authorities are at the front line of providing the day-to-day services on which everyone relies and that they are a lifeline to our communities. Their hard-working elected members and officers are at the front line of dealing with complaints, which are often channelled through MSPs, as members in the chamber will be aware.
Year on year, councils face significant challenges—of that, there is no doubt. It is important to recognise that those challenges are a direct result of austerity and the policies that are being pursued by the Tory Government in Westminster. As some other members have said, despite on-going cuts from Westminster—7.8 per cent between 2013-14 and 2019-20—the Scottish Government has sought to deliver a fair funding package to local authorities.
My authority, East Dunbartonshire Council, received a total of £209 million in revenue and capital. Yes, like every other council, it has had to make savings—it has made savings of around £6 million—but there is no getting away from the fact that that is the result of austerity. Nevertheless, since I was elected at the start of the current parliamentary session in 2016, local government has received a cash increase in its overall budget settlement of £862 million, which is a real-terms increase of 2.4 per cent, as a result of the budget agreements between the Scottish Government and the Scottish Green Party. That seems like a reasonable deal to me, delivered against all odds. However, I am aware that, when some services are cut and savings have to be made, those numbers are just statistics—figures that would appear to have no meaning. The reality is that there is no pot of gold and we have no choice but to play with the cards that we have been dealt.
More money for councils would mean a cut to the health budget, as outlined by Joan McAlpine and others, the education budget, or the budgets for other services that we desperately need and the Government has rightly protected and enhanced. Of course, it is up to each authority how it makes the required savings, and that often comes down to priorities, for which all too often the Opposition tries to blame our Government, although such decisions are completely devolved to individual local authorities.
Like my colleague Gillian Martin, I agree with the premise of most of Labour’s motion. I agree that
“the Parliament commits to supporting people and communities” and that
“local government has a crucial role in doing that”.
Everything that is expressed in Labour’s motion is correct except for the statistics and the underlying reason for the challenges that local authorities face.
I would be surprised if people did not recognise that the Scottish Government is getting on with the job of empowering communities in a variety of ways; in fact, our 32 local authorities have received the most significant empowerment since devolution. One example is our consultation through which we are seeking views on a discretionary local levy on visitors who stay overnight, or a tourist tax, and the responses will inform legislation that will be introduced in 2020.
We have also enabled councils to introduce a workplace parking levy, should they wish to do so. Last week, we announced new powers for local authorities to regulate short-term lets if they decide that doing so is in the interests of local communities. We will devolve non-domestic rates empty property relief to local authorities in time for the next revaluation in April 2022.
If there is agreement on a replacement for the present council tax, we will publish legislation by the end of this parliamentary session, and the legislation will be taken forward in the following session.
Our local governance review is considering how power and resources are shared across the public sector and with our communities. We have also agreed to develop a rules-based framework for local government funding in partnership with COSLA, which would be introduced in the next parliamentary session. Decisions on all future budgets are subject to negotiation with COSLA, so working with local authorities is very much at the top of our agenda.
Under this Government, ring fencing of local authority funding has been decreased, thereby giving local authorities complete autonomy to allocate over 92 per cent of the funding that the Scottish Government provides. Under the Labour-Liberal Democrat Administration, ring fencing stood at £2.7 billion in 2007, compared with only £0.9 billion under the SNP Scottish Government. The ring fencing that exists relates to policies that were supported by parties across the chamber, such as the expansion of early learning and childcare and free personal care, which are two of the most transformative policy initiatives that this nation has ever experienced.
Let me emphasise that there is an additional £210 million in revenue and £25 million in capital to support the expansion of early learning and childcare to 1,140 hours by 2020. In addition, a further £120 million is to be transferred from health to local government to support health and social care. Indeed, COSLA representatives have described ring-fenced policies such as early learning as “excellent” priorities “which we support”.
Of course, we know that this year’s budget process has been hampered by the UK Government’s decision to move the budget date, which is another example of its complete disrespect and disregard for this Parliament. Labour should join the SNP in calling that out, rather than engaging in public speculation on the budget. We know that a massive £125 million was spent on mitigating Westminster Government austerity measures and benefit cuts in 2018-19. That is outrageous. That money could have alleviated many of the problems that councils face in maintaining services.
The Scottish Government will continue to support and value local government, despite the stranglehold of Westminster austerity.
I am delighted to close the debate on funding our local authorities on behalf of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party. As someone who served in local government for 18 years as a councillor, I am acutely aware of how important it is that councils balance their budgets and ensure that they have good finances.
Over the past 13 years, the Scottish Government has seen fit to cut local government funding to the bone and then has asked it to do more with less. That is simply no longer a sustainable position for councils. In order for our local authorities to continue providing the services on which we rely, it is vital that they receive a fair funding settlement in the coming year’s budget. Last year, the SNP Government cut every single council’s budget. Despite the fact that the block grant increased, most local authorities faced a cut of around 3 per cent.
The SNP’s savage and unnecessary cuts to local government are not a new phenomenon. Although the Scottish Government’s budget decreased by only 0.8 per cent between 2013-14 and 2018-19, the SNP chose to reduce council funding at a far steeper rate of 7.1 per cent over the same period.
When the 2019-20 local government finance settlement is set—excluding health, because there was agreement that we should pass on health consequentials in full—the Scottish Government’s resource budget will be 7.8 per cent lower in real terms in 2019-20 than in 2013-14. That is a higher figure than the one that the member shared.
Not at all. The Barnett consequentials are coming up and the Scottish Government will receive hundreds of millions of pounds extra. That is a fact.
The Fraser of Allander institute has predicted that, over the course of those five years alone, there will have been a loss of £1 billion to local government funding in Scotland.
Despite all that, the SNP continues to refuse—as we have just seen—to say that it has created any problems. Ministers have even rejected reports by the Accounts Commission that showed real-terms cuts to council budgets, as they have tried to argue that funding has continued to rise. That point was very well made by my colleague Graham Simpson. That position is wholly unacceptable and ignores the fact that if, for example, a council has its budget increased by £5 million but is asked to fund £10 million of additional priorities, that council is £5 million worse off when it comes to delivering core services.
Between 2018-19 and 2019-20 alone, the percentage of revenue funding that was committed to supporting specific Scottish Government policies almost doubled, from 6.6 to 12.1 per cent. That is putting a strain on spending in areas that are outside the Scottish Government’s priorities, such as culture and leisure, roads maintenance and environmental services. The cuts in those areas are disproportionate, and that cannot be allowed to continue.
Councils are being forced to look at every possible way of addressing the funding situation. More than two thirds of councils have been forced to draw down their reserves in the past three years to help fund day-to-day spending. Moray Council has said that it will have only about five years of reserves left if it continues to fund from it as it has been doing. Authorities such as Clackmannanshire Council are looking to substantially cut public services, others are looking to introduce compulsory redundancy policies and Highland Council has had to cut class time for its youngest pupils to save money.
That is despite the fact that each and every council has imposed at least a 3 per cent rise in council tax, with some even going to the maximum of 4.79 per cent. Others are actively considering introducing car park and tourism taxes, which they are now allowed to do because of the dodgy deal that was done last year with the Greens for them to support the budget.
Despite there being an appetite in the Parliament for some form of council tax reform, there has been no meaningful progress. The SNP has criticised the current system since it came into power in 2007, and it set up a commission on the subject, but it does not like facing the music.
We heard some good speeches in the debate, and I pay tribute to Sarah Boyack for bringing it to the chamber. She said that local government is at the heart of communities, and she talked about the true cost of services and the need for a fair settlement. She gave the example of access to music tuition, which is a real issue across many of our councils because they are being hit hard.
The cabinet secretary said that local government plays a massive part in our communities, but I say to her that it can do that only if the Government funds it.
Murdo Fraser said that all councils’ budgets have been cut because of committed funding and ring fencing. That is having a detrimental effect on our councils.
Willie Rennie said that, with the £400 million of commitments by the Scottish Government, there are still massive gaps. As he said, COSLA has made some proposals on support for councils, but the SNP Government does not support them.
Graham Simpson said that councils are having to use their reserves just to pay the bills and ensure that they can keep going, and that integration joint boards are having issues with the lack of finance, the lack of planning and the loss of all their staff.
With the increases from the UK Government, Barnett consequentials will come to Scotland in droves, but the SNP Government will no doubt squander them, as it has done in the past. We need to see a budget that properly funds local government without forcing hard-working Scots to end up paying the bills. Councils’ capital and revenue budgets must increase by at least the rate of inflation, and additional commitments that are required of councils must be funded. The costs must not be put on others. Only by taking that approach will we ensure that councils can deliver as they want to deliver.
I am more than happy to support the motion with the inclusion of the amendment in the name of my colleague Murdo Fraser, which seeks to provide greater clarity on what we will do. It is time for councils to get a fair deal.
The debate has been a good rehearsal for the budget. At least we are discussing a budget, which is more than can be said for the UK Government, which has delayed its budget to such an extent that it is still not discussing anything. The debate has also been a good opportunity for some parties to rehearse their asks, although most parties have demonstrated that they have still not figured out what they want in this year’s budget, never mind costed it.
Willie Rennie asked me to be straight, but he cannot be straight with the Parliament and the electorate about what he wants to see in the budget. If he wants to give £1 billion more to local authorities, I ask him where he would cut £1 billion.
To be fair to the Greens, I note that, to date, theirs is the only party to have delivered genuine asks on local authority spend. The nature of compromise and of minority government is that we have to come to agreement to get a budget through.
I do not want to pick on the Lib Dems, but I note that Willie Rennie also—and rightly—mentioned the need for clarity. He asked for clarity on council tax, on multiyear budgets and on funding. I agree that local government needs clarity, and that is why the Scottish Government has brought our budget forward to 6 February. We have done that in order to give that clarity, despite not having clarity ourselves because the UK Government will not publish its budget until the very day on which local authorities have to set their council tax.
We heard in committee this morning about the £100 million of wasted taxpayers’ money that the Scottish Government has focused on the Ferguson’s fiasco, but that is not the only wasted money. If the minister cares to discuss it later, I can tell her where we could save £200 million now.
I thank Mr Rumbles for identifying the Lib Dems’ main ask, which is that we ensure that the workforce at Ferguson’s does not have a future and that the ferries that I need for my constituency are not built.
Additional clarity is invaluable for local authorities—we all agree on that. However, the Lib Dems know full well that a deal is needed between the Scottish Government and another party in order to get the budget through. Anybody who calls for clarity in the chamber but then fails to participate in the budget process will have failed local government.
That need for clarity is very relevant to the Tories, who have finally woken up to the fact that there is a budget process going on. Murdo Fraser made some intriguing requests. For example, he asked us to match the income tax rates south of the border. What will those be? We will not know until 11 March. He also promised that, next year, the ever-generous UK Government will give us more money to spend. Alexander Stewart said that that money will come to the Scottish Government “in droves”. How much will it be? We will not know for sure until 11 March. He also asked us to make changes to non-domestic rates, but his party has supported amendments to the Non-Domestic Rates (Scotland) Bill that would remove the powers enabling us to do so.
Sarah Boyack started her speech by highlighting the need to work with local government, which we do because we think it is important. In fact, we are currently in discussions with COSLA as part of the budget process. Of course, it would have been nice if we could also have had discussions with the Scottish Labour Party about its priorities for this year’s budget—what its main ask might be and how it might be funded. I look forward to hearing Labour’s closing speech, because I am waiting with bated breath to find out what its proposals might be.
Ms Boyack rightly mentioned the importance of preventative spend. That is all about outcomes that are captured in the national performance framework, of which we and COSLA are co-signatories. However, Joan McAlpine is quite right: Labour might talk about shifting resource from health to local government but, when it came to it, all parties in the chamber would complain about cuts to other parts of the budget. Labour needs to identify where such cuts would fall. Gillian Martin’s speech was brilliant in laying bare that party’s hypocrisy in calling for increased spend in one area but being unable to say which other area it would cut.
Joan McAlpine also mentioned other parts of the UK, which are relevant to the debate because the ultimate source of the majority of our funding is the UK Government. In the period from 2013 to 2020, English local authorities have seen a real-terms reduction of 22.8 per cent, and Welsh local authorities one of 11.5 per cent. That is precisely why COSLA’s finance spokesperson said that councils in England and Wales are collapsing. In Scotland, we are taking quite a different approach.
However, the key point in all of this is very simple. This year, as part of the budget process, every party that is currently complaining in the chamber will have the opportunity to present fully costed proposals to the finance secretary. Every party that fails to do so will have achieved nothing but the party posturing that James Dornan rightly identified.
Despite the obstacles that the Scottish Government faces, we remain firmly focused on producing, on 6 February, a budget that will deliver on the objectives that we share with our local government partners—improved wellbeing, support for inclusive growth, responses to the global climate emergency and the tackling of child poverty—all of which are firmly anchored in the jointly agreed national performance framework.
Our negotiations with local government continue ahead of the budget announcement on 6 February, and I assure all members that the Government stands ready to work with any Opposition party that is willing to act responsibly by making constructive proposals for the Scottish budget. I look forward to seeing them.
Scottish Labour brought the debate to the chamber to urge the Government to invest in local services and in our future and to build a caring society.
After more than a decade of austerity, the services on which our constituents depend are broken. There are waiting lists for free personal care, and in some cases it is simply not available. Young people with additional support needs are not receiving the education to which they are entitled. Local roads are crumbling and full of potholes, and bus services are being cut.
COSLA’s invest in essential services campaign highlights the fact that local government is at breaking point and cannot take continued cuts to its budgets. That is why we are calling on the Scottish Government to invest in local government and give it a fair funding settlement. We need to draw a line. Judging by the tone of the interventions in the debate, most of which were thoughtful, all members will know from their mailboxes that that is true.
In her opening remarks, Sarah Boyack spoke of dignity, which is a theme that has run through the debate. Monica Lennon pointed out that, since November 2014, Information Services Division figures have costed the delayed discharge policy at £653 million, which means that it has been a false economy. More than 2.5 million days of people’s lives have been needlessly spent in hospital. Such an approach has an impact on real people.
I have a constituent who faced spending Christmas in hospital. She was fit to go home but she needed additional support in the short term. She had done nothing wrong, yet she was about to be held in hospital against her will. We were able to intervene and get support for her, but how many other people spent this Christmas in hospital when they should have been at home with their loved ones? Looking after people at home costs a fraction of what it costs to hold them in hospital against their will. We have to invest in home care, value those who provide the service and allow people to remain at home in comfort.
I have another constituent who has been told that he faces spending the rest of his life in a care home because community care cannot be provided. That is simply cruel. His partner will have to give up work to look after him at home for as long as possible. That is a fundamental breach of the promises that the Government made to carers in the Carers (Scotland) Act 2016. It will cost much more to look after that constituent in a care home than it would have cost if he were at home—where he wants to be—with his family.
Monica Lennon spoke about the pressure that is being put on social workers—90 per cent of them are contemplating leaving their job.
Graham Simpson talked about IJBs operating in deficit because the costs are falling to them and then, in turn, to NHS boards and councils.
Monica Lennon and Bill Bowman spoke about drug and alcohol services, cuts to which are leading to deaths. There has been an increase in the number of drug-related deaths, which is simply unacceptable in a caring society.
Iain Gray talked about investing in our children and grandchildren. Young people with ASN are not getting the education that they are entitled to, and there is no support for their parents. There are pupils in my region who have to share ASN teachers with other pupils who are not even in the same class. That means that one child goes without support while the ASN teacher is in another class. There are parents who cannot get to work because the school continually calls them in to look after those children. Not only are we failing those children, we are failing their classmates and their families.
Falling teacher numbers and growing class sizes are failures for all of us. Cuts in music tuition mean that only those who can afford to pay for it are able to learn to play a musical instrument, and after-school clubs are disappearing.
Colin Smyth talked about transport and bus services. We all know that Lothian Buses is an exemplar, and we want that kind of bus service to be rolled out in all of our communities. We need to invest in bus services, but, instead, council cuts mean that bus services are being taken away because councils cannot afford to subsidise them. Mr Smyth was perfectly correct in saying that, instead of questioning the older person’s bus pass, the Government should have been consulting on how to keep it and extend it to younger people, because our bus services need to be rebuilt. That has a cost to our local economies.
There would have been an outcry and partnership action for continuing employment—PACE—would have been involved if one in seven workers had left their work or if 40,000 jobs had been lost in any other employment. People would have dealt with those job cuts, whereas they disappear under the radar when it comes to local government.
Andy Wightman spoke about devolution and the transfer of powers. Devolution means transferring powers from London to Edinburgh, but, surely, it also means transferring them from Edinburgh to our communities. He was right to quote COSLA, which declared that Scotland is one of the most centralised countries in Europe. We must ensure that powers are entrusted to our local councils and that they have powers over their own taxation and the services that they provide to their own communities.
The voluntary sector is also facing cuts because of the cuts to local government. We have heard about the situation in Glasgow, but that situation has been replicated throughout the country.
We know that tough funding decisions have had to be made, but letting councils bear the brunt of those has led to increased pressures and costs elsewhere. Cuts to community care have increased disproportionately, which has put stress on acute care services. People are ending up in hospital and are remaining there because there is no support in their community. The cost of that to the public purse is much more than the cost of their remaining at home, and the personal cost to those involved is immeasurable.
Failing to provide our young people with an adequate education has a lifelong cost, not just for them but for all of us, because we lose the contribution that they would have made if they had achieved their full potential. That must change.
I believe that nobody in this chamber entered politics to preside over such a situation. We need to look after our people, and we need to provide fair funding to our councils to enable them to do that.