Last week I took part in the latest debate on local government finance in the Scottish Parliament.
This was the second debate in as many months on funding for local councils – a result of the approach taken by the SNP on this issue. You can watch my speech 8:55 minutes into the video opposite.
In the first debate at the start of February, the basic level of funding was discussed. Last week’s debate concerned the distribution of the £70m offered by the SNP in return for authorities freezing council tax, maintaining pupil to teacher ratios and offering places for all probationer teachers.
Throughout the past year, I have challenged SNP on concerns about underfunding of local government and of the underfunding of the Council Tax Freeze specifically.
My questions have come as a result of research and reports from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Audit Scotland, Unison and the Scottish Parliament Information Centre, among others. A raft of organisations are asking pertinent questions about the sustainability of local government funding.
I believe that this latest settlement continues a long trend of Local Government not getting the priority it deserves under the SNP.
Since the SNP came to power, every council in the country has had a real terms cut to funding. The effects can be seen in cuts to services, increased charges for local people and the loss of almost 40,000 jobs in seven years.
As the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has pointed out, vulnerable groups that rely on council services are the most affected by these cuts. There are the growing challenges of supporting people on low incomes, deprivation and providing care for the increasing numbers of older people who need it
Ahead of the debate, local government colleagues raised key issues with me such as the underfunding of the school meal pledge and the pledge on extra childcare. The council umbrella group COSLA has made representations on these issues and others to the Finance Secretary.
Despite the concerns of numerous organisations, the Scottish Government tell us this settlement is a good deal. In truth I believe that it’s a straightjacket binding councils to meet central demands without proper funding. The council tax freeze remains underfunded and, as councils face rising costs and increased demand for services, the situation worsens.
Labour lodged a reasoned amendment to the Government’s motion which, if supported would have placed on record the Parliament’s concerns about the issues being raised by external organisations while ensuring that councils received their share of the settlement. Unfortunately the Government rejected the amendment and we reluctantly supported the settlement. Last year our amendment on the need to act on the Bedroom Tax suffered a similar fate.
It is increasingly clear that Local Government finance has been broken under an SNP Government that places difficult decisions about the future of local services second to the referendum. The day after our debate in Parliament I debated the future of local government with the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon and the Lib Dem Leader Willie Rennie MSP. The irony of the Scottish Government demanding more powers for themselves while taking powers from local government was not lost on the audience. It’s no accident that Scottish Labour’s Devolution Commission is called “Powers for a Purpose: Strengthening Accountability and Empowering People”.