IT IS with mixed emotions that I’m standing down as a councillor in May to focus on my role as a Green MSP.
Part of me will always feel rooted in the communities I’ve served as a councillor and the need to champion the local services that support us all.
It’s often in town halls that decisions made at Holyrood or Westminster are tested to destruction and where the buck stops. What are the impacts of benefit sanctions on the education of a child? Can rural communities access public transport that’s genuinely run in the public interest? These questions and hundreds more pose hard challenges for councillors over budget and policy choices that have a real impact on people’s lives.
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For years local services have faced huge pressures as Westminster cuts to Scottish Government budgets have been handed down to councils. Although councils were funded to deliver the Council Tax freeze, it made it impossible for them to raise the additional income needed to protect frontline services from cuts. Often minor changes in budget lines under £50,000 have had a disproportionate impact on services, so Council Tax rises remain a significant tool to remove the most controversial cuts.
Councils including Aberdeen, Stirling and Edinburgh have been taking cuts proposals directly to the public with annual consultations in recent years. Often complex and impenetrable, these “Priority Based Budgets” have resulted in headlines in local papers ranging from proposed sales of treasured community buildings to the withdrawal of school swimming lessons. But at every meeting I have attended the most asked question is: “Why can’t we just raise more money locally?”
Many councils have now drastically stripped out capacity and experience as staff have left through voluntary redundancies and restructuring. Although compulsory redundancies have in many cases been avoided, cuts have disproportionately affected the terms and conditions of many of the lowest paid workers, especially women.
Savings of course are always possible and some acted early to save millions. For example, I successfully pushed the case in my own council for a switch to low-energy street lighting. It was taken on and will save hundreds of thousands of pounds as the years go by.
As sensible efficiency savings alongside controversial cuts have kicked in, the financial bottom line of councils has improved, but many are still faced with difficult choices to make about frontline services, especially under the biggest budget headings of education and social care.
National ringfencing of education staffing budgets, for example, has put pressure on everything else which isn’t.
This has been a problem where support for children with Additional Support Needs (ASN) has been left outside of the ringfence. One in seven ASN teachers has now gone since 2010, as well as one in 10 support staff.
It was therefore important that this year’s Holyrood budget deal enabled £160 million of additional un-ringfenced funding to flow directly to Scotland’s councils. I’ve met people around the doors whose jobs have been saved as a result of this funding and, although for some councils it didn’t close the gap on all cuts, it has made a big difference.
In my own council it resulted in the reversal of proposed cuts to schools and public transport, increasing money for services to support the most vulnerable, investing in new apprenticeships, roads, footpaths and a range of other priorities.
That’s good news, but looking ahead we need proper reform to the way local government is fairly funded, including scrapping the Council Tax.
We also need more creative use of the Parliament’s powers on income tax. It was disappointing that Green proposals to lower tax on those earning less than the average wage, while raising tax marginally for those earning at higher levels, were rejected by the Scottish Government. We will need bolder measures in the future to stop the erosion of frontline public services and the loss of the dedicated staff who deliver them.
The starting point has to be a new “fiscal framework” between Holyrood and councils, where more democratic accountability lies locally and where budget decision-making powers can flow directly to communities. We need an agreement where local government is championed and where savings are re-invested in higher quality services that are responsive to local needs.
With postal votes starting to drop this week, and with polling day on May 4 fast approaching, it’s sad but not surprising to see the Tories, Labour and LibDems desperately using this local election as a proxy for constitutional issues. I’m proud that Greens are focusing on what it’s really about: decisions over local services, such as schools, social care and housing.
I’ll no longer be in local government after May, but I’ll be watching carefully and making sure my voice is heard as both a local resident and as an MSP.