Those of us who rely on care and support in our own home, those who want to see the highest standards in our schools and who want to keep our neighbourhoods safe and clean are facing a worrying future. Cuts in government support are directly affecting those public services and our Councils have nowhere to turn. If we are to restore local democratic accountability, protect essential services and prevent further job losses then Scotland urgently needs a new approach to local government finance.
As Leader of Scottish Labour I would work with the current Scottish Government and other parties to find a long term sustainable model to fund our local authorities, however, those in need cannot wait that long. I will demand the immediate restoration of financial control and ask for local accountability to be given back to our directly elected council colleagues.
John Swinney, the SNP’s Finance Secretary, refers to the council tax freeze as a ‘partnership approach’ but the reality is local councillors have been forced to accept budgets drawn up and imposed on them from Holyrood. Our local authorities are having to shed jobs in their thousands and our public services are stretched to breaking point. The reality is the Scottish Government has become trapped by its own populism, unwilling to accept that its policy is placing unsustainable demands on local authority budgets.
Last week Glasgow and Edinburgh city councils warned they may have to shed 4000 posts if they’re to balance their books by 2017. Glasgow City Council is planning to cut a further £100million, some 7% of its spending, while Edinburgh City Council has been forced into cuts to basic services including public toilets and leisure centres as part of a £67million package of savings. These are not local decisions, they are the direct result of a lack of local control.
The story is the same across Scotland. Highland Council says it will have to make savings of £46million over the next three years – a startling £13million more than they anticipated.
In my own local authority, East Renfrewshire Council is having to decide between selling off a care home, losing vital hours of dementia respite or closing down one of our learning disability centres. They have no alternative sources of finance and are not allowed to look at raising the Council tax by even £1 for every resident. For a government that is constantly arguing for full fiscal responsibility, it is entirely hypocritical to deny that choice to our directly elected local authorities.
To build a fairer Scotland, we must empower Scotland’s communities.
We need to give local councils more control including an alternative income stream to the Council tax such as the tax on alcohol offered by the social responsibility levy or the revenue from the newly devolved Crown Estate. The council tax freeze has helped families through a difficult economic time but we should allow local people to decide for themselves whether they want it to continue or not.
Council budgets are failing to keep pace with inflation which means that, year-on-year, the pot of money available to finance the basic services we need just to keep society functioning is getting smaller and smaller. John Swinney and Nicola Sturgeon claim the council tax freeze is popular among voters and yes, they may be right, but bribing people to make them like you is not a responsible way to run a government.
Devolution has empowered Scots to take more control of our own lives and we should not be centralising decision making for the whole of Scotland in Edinburgh. The next stage is double devolution, giving councils, communities and individuals more responsibility not less.
If elected Scottish Labour Leader, I will campaign to give Scots greater say over their own services and their own future. We all want to build a fairer Scotland. Under my leadership, Scottish Labour will give all Scots the power to make our voices heard.