Austerity ‘catching up with local services’ in Scotland

6 Feb 19

Improvement in some council services is starting to slow for the first time in almost a decade against a backdrop of declining public satisfaction, according to the latest overview of local government in Scotland.

The annual report for the Scottish Local Benchmarking Framework found that service performance had been maintained “remarkably well” since 2010-11 despite a real-terms fall of 8.3% in total revenue funding from £10.5bn to £9bn.

However, there was evidence that performance improvement was slowing down for the first time over the period in key areas, such as academic attainment for children leaving school in the most deprived areas of the country, and the uptake of leisure services such as libraries, swimming pools and museums.

“These may be ‘stress’ indicators and a sign that, after almost ten years, austerity is catching up with local service performance,” the report, published by the Improvement Service, said.

These were currently one-year blips, rather than trends, and the trend data remained positive, it said, although the reasons behind year on year changes should be explored as there was “substantial” local variation around the national averages.

More concerning, it warned, was the trend of year on year decline in public satisfaction with local services.

“Across all service areas for which data is available, both the long-term trend and the year on year change is a reduction in stated satisfaction,” it said.

This echoed concerns about the challenge councils faced in meeting the increasing demand for services against tightening budgets.

In particular, satisfaction with schools had declined by 13% since 2010, while the approval rating of libraries fell by 11.5% and street cleaning by 7.3%.

The analysis found that while spending on education and care – which together account for over 70% of benchmarked expenditure within the framework – had been relatively protected, most other service areas had experienced substantial reductions in spending, with a cut of 34% in planning, 22% in culture and leisure and almost 15% in roads.

Alison Evison, president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and chair of the Improvement Service board, said the report showed local government had done “a remarkable job in difficult circumstances”.

“The problem now is that, as the report identifies, this will become increasingly difficult as budget cuts over a number of years begin to bite,” she said. 

“What councils are continuing to achieve for communities is impressive considering the financial challenges we face – but obviously as [the] report clearly shows this is simply unsustainable in the longer term.”

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