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Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Councils say they face worst ever finance pressure

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Council finance chiefs have warned that Scotland’s local authorities are facing unprecedented financial pressures.

Glasgow’s finance director said all councils were on a “knife edge”, with inflation creating huge challenges.

MSPs were told “ring fencing” of central government funding meant services such as libraries, refuse and leisure services would be hit hardest.

The Scottish government said it had boosted council funding in real terms by £2.2bn since 2013-14.

  • Councils face ‘hardest spending choices in years’
  • Budget could lead to service cuts, councils warn

Finance directors from three councils told Holyrood’s local government housing and planning committee they faced huge challenges as they prepared to set next year’s budgets.

Glasgow’s finance director Martin Booth said the pressure from increased inflation had made this year particularly difficult.

He said: “That’s what’s made this the worst, or most difficult year we’ve ever had. The demand for services on the back of that because of the cost of living crisis really has been [the worst].”

A common complaint was that most central government funding was directed for specific purposes, giving councils little leeway on where to make savings.

Ministers claim that only 7% of funding is ring-fenced by law, but local authorities estimate that 60-70% is, in effect, earmarked for areas like education and social care.

Argyll and Bute executive director Kirsty Flanagan said that meant cuts were not distributed evenly across services.

“You’ve got your waste, your bins, your leisure facilities, your cultural facilities – it means it’s a deeper cut for them,” she said.

Waste collection

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The Scottish government announced £570m of extra help for councils in its December budget, but directors from Glasgow, Dundee and Argyll said the bulk of that was to pay for new policy initiatives like the rollout of more free school meals.

They also warned that money allocated for new policies often failed to take into account inflation in future years, meaning that core funding was eroded over time.

Ms Flanagan said policies such as phasing out petrol and diesel small vehicles by 2025 would eat into Argyll and Bute’s capital funding grant, meaning there was less available for school building improvements.

Dundee’s corporate services director Robert Emmott said the council had already tried to make some services more efficient, so increasingly the only option for significant savings was to do less.

The directors said council tax offered only a limited source of income. Rates would have to rise by 20-25% to cover their estimated budget shortfalls, something that would not be acceptable, they said.

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