'Lack of clarity' on what councils can deliver amid funding shortfall

COSLA claimed local authority spending decisions directed by the government is leading to 'confusion'.

COSLA claim local authorities forced to make spending decisions directed by Scottish Government iStock

‘Confusing’ finances and local authority spending decisions directed by the Scottish Government is leading to a ‘lack of clarity’ about the reality of what councils can deliver, COSLA has claimed.

The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities said a funding shortfall of more than £60m is ‘simply not good enough’ after calling for an extra £1bn.

In a bid to avoid socially harmful cuts, COSLA said local government finances need early and proactive discussions to stop ‘annual arguments’ about what can and cannot be afforded by councils.

COSLA added that councils also need more freedom to address local priorities and the ability to focus on improving outcomes.

Councillor Katie Hagmann, COSLA’s resources spokesperson, said: “Given the significance of our council services to the lives and livelihoods of everyone across Scotland, communities deserve clear and consistent facts in relation to local government finance rather than a yearly debate on how much money is or is not available.  

“All our communities are concerned about is the level of service they can expect, that there is support for the most vulnerable and want to ensure their local environment looks and feels as good as it can – all of these things are under threat because of successive years of underfunding.

“Last week saw the publication of the Accounts Commission’s report on the health of council finances. The report makes it clear that councils are going to have to take very tough decisions over the next few years to balance the books, given the financial pressures they face.

“Responding to the Accounts Commission report, the Scottish Government has quoted both real and cash terms increases of £2.2bn between 2013-14 and 2022-23, but this is contradictory.

“We owe it to our communities to be clear, consistent and transparent about the starting point and how much less, in reality, councils have to spend year on year on the services that our communities rely on.”

Hagmann said the local government funding settlement in 2013-14 was worth £10.3bn and while £12.5bn was provided by the Scottish Government for 2022-23, the £2.2bn increase is “heavily ring fenced” with directed funding for core services and local priorities staying the same – which has been branded a “real-terms cut”.

It was claimed that the money is required to deliver more services than it did a decade ago, coupled with Scotland’s rising population and a legacy of support required post-pandemic for the most vulnerable in society. 

Councillor Hagmann continued that while the Scottish Government claimed councils have seen a £570m increase for their budgets, just £38m can go towards pressures such as inflation, pay and service demand, while the rest is earmarked for policy commitments already in place.

She said: “This year, demand for services like social care is at an all-time high but given the range of pressure facing councils, they simply don’t have the resources they need to work towards keeping people out of hospital. 

“Each day during winter, there is quite rightly a focus on getting people out of hospital to free up beds – currently councils support just over 97% of patients to be discharged without delay. 

“The problem is not just getting people out of hospital but stopping them going in – councils simply don’t have the resources they need to provide the care packages or the interventions that prevent ill-health.

“COSLA’s key concerns are not only the socially harmful impact of cuts on our communities, but the way in which local government finance has been presented to them. 

“The messaging is that there is more money for essential services each year despite this not being the case with councils asking communities about where they want to see cuts and reductions if essential services, like schools, roads, waste collection, child and adult protection, environmental health and social care are to continue to be delivered, every day of every year.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government recognises the crucial role councils and their employees play in our communities across Scotland and the challenging financial circumstances they face.

“The Scottish Government’s settlements from the UK Government have suffered a decade of austerity with average real terms cuts of over 5%, equating to a loss of £18bn.

“Despite this, we have listened to councils and are increasing the resources available to local government by over £570m, a real terms increase of £160.6m or 1.3%.

“We’re also maintaining £591m revenue from the NHS to Integration Authorities to ensure improved outcomes on health and social care. And local government funding will also receive allocations from within other Scottish Government portfolios.

“We want to work with local government, to build on the Covid Recovery Strategy and agree an urgent approach which improves delivery of sustainable public services.

“The Deputy First Minister made clear in his letter of December 15 to the COSLA President that we want to develop such a partnership agreement at pace. We are disappointed that to date COSLA have not responded to this offer.”

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