Watchdog highlights Scots councils’ varied approach to spending cuts

7 Mar 17

The performance of Scottish local authorities in coping with continual financial squeezes varies widely, according to the Accounts Commission.

Incoming councillors must rise to the challenges posed by diminishing revenues and rising demand for services like social care and education, the Scottish public spending watchdog says in a report published today. Together social care and education account for more than £7 of every £10 councils spend.

Elections will be held in all 32 authorities in Scotland in May.

The commission states government revenue funding for councils has fallen in real terms by 9.2% since 2010-11 and staffing by 7%, or 15,100 full-time equivalents, it says in its annual overview, compiled by Audit Scotland.

Yet, demand is growing, with eight councils projected to see numbers of over-75s in their areas double by 2039.

The report shows wide variations between authorities in key service indicators, with the gap between the highest and lowest ranging from 50 percentage points in waste recycling to just 5% in council tax collection rates.

“Some have grasped the nettle in finding new ways to provide services more efficiently. Others have been slower off the mark. Councils have made savings by cutting jobs but half of them still don't have organisation-wide workforce plans,” the commission says.

The commission concluded councils have maintained or improved performance but that they need to do more to involve communities in service design and delivery because of a decline in public satisfaction and a growing number of complaints.

"New councillors will require time to settle in and develop skills to make strategic plans, consider options for service delivery and scrutinise how well this is happening in practice,”  Ronnie Hinds, the commission deputy chair, said.

"But they have four years ahead of them, and they need to plan effectively for the longer term, work with their communities to decide key priorities and then make that plan happen.”

David O’Neill, president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, accepted the need for better community engagement, but denied that it was solely a matter for councils: “To realise true efficiencies and have much greater public involvement we need to look more broadly with joined up longer term planning across the whole of the public sector,” he said

“Over 2016/17 and 2017/18 local government has seen a £550m reduction in its settlement and that is the budget reality,” O’Neill added. “Councils are doing all they can to mitigate the impact of these cuts on communities.”

Graham Simpson, the Scottish Conservatives’ local government spokesman, said: “Both the SNP and Labour seem to think the only solution to this is to whack up council tax.

“Audit Scotland has now exposed that lazy and punishing policy, pointing out even though it hits people in the pocket, it will have next to no impact on resources.”

Meanwhile, the Scottish Government has said it will spend £57.9m in the coming year, £7.7m more than last year, on mitigating the impact of UK government social security cuts, with the bulk of the money - £47m – spent on fully offsetting the so-called bedroom tax for more than 70,000 households in Scotland.

  • Keith Aitken
    Keith Aitken

    covers Scottish affairs for Public Finance from Edinburgh. He was formerly economics editor and chief leader writer on The Scotsman and now has a busy freelance career as a writer, broadcaster and event chair.

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