Too wee and too poor
Florence Boyle argues that size matters for councils, and that what is broken in local government won’t be fixed by arguing over money alone.
Scottish Labour’s demand that local government funding be increased by more than half a billion pounds is a bold ask. Let’s pretend, for the sake of debate, that that happens. The cake gets bigger but it will only maintain a standstill position. Doesn’t that just mean that the more fundamental problems with local government remain unaddressed and those areas in most need keep falling behind?
I don’t claim any particular expertise. I am, like most, a consumer of services. I vote, I keep myself informed about local politics. I live in one of the poorest and, no coincidence, one of the smallest local authority areas, West Dunbartonshire.
Size matters. Whatever functions have been stripped away from local councils, a raft remain, and it’s surely common-sense to say that there is a minimum critical mass of people and capital needed to deliver services and support strategic planning. In small councils the practical effect of the constant chipping away and standstill budgeting has been flatter structures and the creation of opaquely named departments with increasingly broader remits.
For example, one of only three departments in West Dunbartonshire Council (WDC) is called “Transformation and Public Service Reform”. It is responsible for back office functions like finance, procurement and IT, and front facing functions like education, libraries and cultural services. Quite the mix.
According to Scottish Government statistics, to deliver council services to their 90,000 residents WDC employs 19 staff per head of population. This compares to 27 per head for East Renfrewshire, and 36 per head for Glasgow. Some might argue that this is a demonstration of a cost efficient service. Perhaps a more plausible conclusion is that some things have just stopped being done.
Small local authority areas like West Dunbartonshire and Inverclyde, still paying the price of de-industrialisation, lack the revenue base and the critical mass to initiate and support the kind of step change that is needed to positively impact the lives of the people who live there. While the local government settlement makes some amelioration for the poorest areas by redistributing from the richest, it’s clear from the persistent, depressing statistics for critical measures such as poverty, educational attainment and life expectancy in WDC that this amelioration is not enough.
According to Audit Scotland, local authorities have taken a real terms cut of 7.6% since 2010/11. If WDC got all this funding back tomorrow it would likely make little positive impact on these statistics.
Current WDC budget proposals include stripping £1.5 million from the Health & Social Care Partnership. This in an area where life expectancy rates are significantly worse than the Scottish average and which has the highest presentation rate of homeless young people in Scotland.
Last week I attended a Trades Council meeting calling for a no cuts budget. The testimony of those working on the front line was affecting and moving, as a stream of council workers helped the audience understand what the practical and human consequences of further budget cuts will mean. Overall the sense was one of inevitability.
The only consolation local politicians could offer was that rich areas like East Renfrewshire and Perth & Kinross are now feeling the pinch, and this may prompt a compromise. It seems that even in this rich folk have louder voices.
In a now long-forgotten manifesto Labour promised to undo the Tory local government re-organisation of the mid-1990s. The days of Strathclyde Regional Council are still remembered as a time when areas like WDC got a fair shake. But for whatever reason, and without any alternative proposals, this idea was shelved. Periodically proposals appear to change the funding model, but none of these last beyond an election campaign.
We need to rethink. There is something fundamentally broken in local government and there needs to be a sustainable solution. Proposals that focus on tinkering with financing mechanisms miss the mark completely in terms of enabling local government to work better for areas like mine, which need help the most.