Council leaders have told the Scottish Government they need an extra £700 million funding simply to stand still – but they require more than double that sum if they are to “thrive”.
Ahead of Finance Secretary Kate Forbes announcing the draft Scottish budget for 2022-23 on December 9, the local government body Cosla made a plea for “fair funding”.
Without this they warned that policies promised by the Scottish Government – such as the SNP’s election manifesto promise of free school music tuition – may not be able to be delivered.
Colsa president Alison Evison said bluntly: “If councils don’t have the money they need to be able to support local communities, services will have to stop, that is the bottom line. Without the money things can’t be delivered.”
In the budget for 2021-22 councils were awarded just over £11 billion for day-to-day spending – with Cosla’s briefing paper stating that to “stand still” local government needs to receive £11.723 billion next year.
Meanwhile if local authorities are to thrive, Cosla insisted £12.661 billion is needed, saying this would allow them to meet new policy commitments, the increased cost of National Insurance Contributions, as well as contend with inflation, while also working towards coronavirus recovery.
Speaking ahead of next month’s draft Scottish budget, Ms Evison said that authorities were “focusing on the role local government has to enable people to live well locally”.
But she insisted: “Only properly funded local government can make this possible at a local level.
“Unfortunately we know about the cuts to council core budgets over recent years, and these cuts have not allowed this ambition to be realised fully.
“The budget on December 9 presents a perfect opportunity to reset Scottish public spending in a way that empowers councils right across Scotland to achieve their ambition for their own local communities.
“We urge the Scottish Government to reverse the trend of real terms cuts so we can support recovery and fully enable people to live well locally.”
Colsa resources spokeswoman Gail Macgregor meanwhile argued that while councils have been the “poor relation in budgets in the recent past” the Covid crisis had highlighted the important role they play in providing local services.
She stated: “We are kind of reaching a wee bit of a tipping now, in that despite the heroic efforts of our councils over the past 20 months there is still a feeling of neglect in underfunded local government, and the pandemic has really shone a light on that.”
She continued: “What we need from this budget is proper funding to provide our everyday services for our communities, what they need and what they deserve, and that will allow people to live well locally.
“Simply to stand still we’re going to need £11.7 billion, that’s just to stand still, that’s not taking into account any pay inflation, any general inflation, the additional cost of materials at the moment.”
Ms Macgregor questioned: “At what point do we have to go back to Government and say: ‘We can’t deliver on this policy commitment, we simply can’t afford it’?”
While she stressed policies such as providing free music tuition for all in schools were “good things”, she added: “They were things we were funding before and we would have continued to fund if we had sufficient budget to do so.
“But they cut our budgets, so we had to cut music instruction.”
She also spoke out about councils’ “frustration at having that local political decision making taken away”.
Colsa also insisted that council tax should not be frozen – as it was in 2021-22 – arguing that this policy benefits higher earners more.
Its briefing paper went on to state that “successive years of a council tax freeze means that the council tax base is significantly smaller (around £600 million) than it could have been, had the decision been left to councils”.
In addition to calling for more cash for day-to-day spending, councils also want to see their capital budgets increased.
The Scottish Government’s capital spending review indicated authorities should receive £628 million in 2022-23, but Cosla claimed this would represent a 6% real terms reduction compared with 2013-14.
It argued that while there have been increases in capital spending over the years, these have been largely used to pay for increased nursery provision – allowing the Scottish Government to meet its pledge of expanding free nursery hours to 1,140 per child.
But Cosla claimed if councils are to provide “real-terms investment that enables work towards net zero” and other key areas of work, they would need an additional £500 million.
Opposition politicians backed Cosla’s call for councils to get more cash, with Labour finance spokesman Daniel Johnson stating: “After years of neglect, councils are struggling to stay afloat.
“There is no hiding the truth – across Scotland libraries are closing, bins are overflowing, schools are understaffed and roads are covered in potholes.
“This is a result of years of brutal budget cuts from the SNP. This year’s budget must deliver a fair settlement for our councils.”
Conservative local government spokesman Miles Briggs said that “cuts from the SNP Government have had a devastating impact on local services for too long”.
He added: “A successful recovery for communities across Scotland can be accelerated if Kate Forbes finally listens to these calls from councils, who are at the heart of that recovery.
“Councils can ill-afford another year of having to choose between what crucial day-to-day services to cut, or be forced into raising people’s council tax bills.”