North Ayrshire Council will set its budget for 2016/17 on the 17th February. It will be the fourth budget of this term and it will be the most challenging yet.
Councillors were invited to a budget seminar last week where we were told just how challenging it will be. Much of the details are ‘confidential’ at this stage but there a few things, about the cuts coming to local government, that I can highlight.
People know that cuts to councils are cuts to communities and those faced by local government this year are unprecedented.
My colleague, and COSLA President, David O’Neill was absolutely right when, after the draft Scottish budget was announced, he said;
“Make no mistake, this is a Budget that has been made in Scotland and imposed on Scottish local government. This is an austerity budget of straight political choice.”
The fact is that “Westminster”, or the Tory’s, cannot be blamed for this year’s cuts. We know that the Tory’s austerity agenda is starving public services of the investment they need but, this year, the Scottish Government’s budget has increased, in cash terms, by £205million. Despite that they are cutting £500million from local government’s budget.
North Ayrshire’s share of this cut is around £10million. Adding in budget 'pressures' the financial gap for 2016/17 increases to over £13million.
The Scottish Government have also decided that, whilst they are imposing these cuts on Scottish councils, the Council Tax freeze is to continue.
I can understand why the Council Tax freeze has been, by in large, a popular policy with the public. However, there are some issues with the freeze that need highlighted.
First of all, let’s banish the myth that the Council Tax freeze is, somehow, a ‘freebie’. The reality is that the freeze has been subsidised by the Scottish Government to the tune of £2.5billion. That is still £2.5billion of taxpayer’s money, only it has been diverted away from the public services that so many, particularly the vulnerable, rely on to subsidise the freeze.
In addition, it disproportionately benefits the wealthy. Research by UNISON in 2013 showed that people in the most expensive Band H homes saved, on average, £441 per year whilst those in the cheapest homes saved £147.
The freeze has, in my opinion, broken the Council Tax as a form of local taxation. I hope that, for future years, we will see local taxation reformed and the Council Tax replaced with a more progressive option.
However, that it will be too late for this year. What the people of North Ayrshire needed from this year’s Scottish budget was an anti-austerity alternative to the Tory’s. Instead we got a budget that will make yet more devastating cuts to vital local services.
In the previous three budgets of this term our SNP council administration have cut services such as Women’s Aid, Speech and Language Therapy and the Community Warden service. The scale of this year’s cut is unprecedented and there will undoubtedly be much pain contained within the SNP’s budget. It will likely fall again on the Labour Councillors to stand up for our public services and challenge the cuts that come.