Friday, 28 June 2013

“Stiff Financial Challenges”

The tribal warfare in Scottish politics that is SNP v Labour is impossible to escape if you're in East Lothian. Since an unholy alliance of Labour, three Tories and an independent took over running the council from the Nats last Spring there’s been constant bickering over who did what to the finances, and frankly it’s a complete turn off even for political nerds like me.

So let’s take a moment to cut through the hyperbole and vitriol and crunch some numbers so we know where we are right now, and where we're heading. Today I was rummaging for up to date figures for Musselburgh’s Common Good Fund (that in itself is another story and another blog post) and as luck would have it I found the latest set of accounts from EastLothian Council, signed off just yesterday by the authority’s head of resources.

He makes clear the cutbacks we’ve seen to date are far from over. His final paragraph is particularly chilling:

“The council continues to face stiff financial challenges and fully anticipates that it will require to make further tough choices in the coming years. The projected loss in central government funding forecast by independent analysts, combined with the anticipated freeze in Council Tax, will almost certainly require a reduction in both revenue and capital budgets and a more stringent downward management of costs.”

Lots of love and happy holidays! (I made that last bit up – can you tell?)

The headline figures for me are:

-       East Lothian Council has a bottom line deficit of £25.499 million.

-       Over the next two years over 90 staff will leave under a voluntary redundancy scheme, saving the council an estimated £2.8m a year.

-       More reductions are planned and the council aims to save a further £8.5m across uits operating base.

-       The hole in the council’s pension fund has grown larger – up from £94m to £110m.

-       Investment in assets to support council services has fallen in the past year by more than a quarter, down to £52m from £71m.

-       Council rent will have to rise.

“Stiff financial challenges”? Talk about an understatement!

Given the SNP Government’s commitment to the stupid council tax freeze (it benefits the wealthiest the most) – a freeze Labour also pledged going into the Holyrood 2011 election – along with the cuts being handed on from the Slash & Burn Tory-Libdem Coalition at Westminster, it’s hard to see anything brightening for councils such as East Lothian any time soon.

Rather than bickering, the warring factions should be working together to maintain services and preserve jobs and wages. It’s clear the state we’re in is unsatisfactory and unsustainable. Communities must be consulted before the axe is wielded further, and whatever the outcome of the independence referendum next year there needs to be a new way of running local government in Scotland that improves democracy and accountability, gives greater flexibility and puts progressive values at its heart.   

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