Sunday, 25 October 2015

Funding, Fresh Air and Freedom - Analysing East Lothian Council Priorities

On Tuesday there's a full meeting of East Lothian Council. Do try to keep calm at that thrilling prospect, and carry on reading this blog.

You see, the items due for discussion are pretty important. There's an audit of the council's finances, there's a highly political motion about the regressive council tax freeze, and there's a glaring omission from the council's stated priorities for the next year.

First up, the annual audit, by KPMG. 

This highlights that a key challenge for the council is financial constraint, including the Scottish Government's council tax reduction scheme. Funding for this is static so is in effect a real-terms cut. And there's a further risk as there is an increase in properties affected but the funding from government is fixed, not demand-led, so will further stretch the council's finances.

Then there's the annual performance report. 

One of the key findings in this for me is that only 22 per cent of people feel they can influence decisions affecting their local area. If that's not a demonstration of how centralised our democracy has become, I don't know what is. It relates to a motion put forward by the SNP opposition on the council - I'll come to that shortly.

Elsewhere in the performance report there's a reference to the issue I've been campaigning on in Musselburgh for the past few years - the appalling traffic congestion and air pollution in the town centre. The report states: "An air quality action plan has been developed." Has it? This is news to me! I recently asked the council's environment spokesman for an update and he ignored me; likewise the council leader. I have now been in touch with the council's chief executive to ask for an update from senior officials.
Musselburgh's air pollution - not a priority for East Lothian Council

The performance report contains a number of "indicators" to measure how well the council is doing. Sadly, air quality is not an indicator. The report also highlights an astonishing figure - half of all the journeys to work in East Lothian are single person car journeys. Again, sadly, this is not listed as an indicator of performance. If our local authority is serious about improving public health, helping town centre regeneration and reducing climate emissions I fail to see why it doesn't set itself a target of reducing air pollution and single person car journeys.

There is however good news in the report. Surveys show everyone loves their local libraries, parks and leisure facilities. I agree with that!

Then there's the Council Plan. 

It's good to see priority being given to developing vocational education in local schools and partnering with Edinburgh College - an issue I've blogged about before and I campaigned on during the Westminster election.

There are warm words about regeneration of town centres and developing town centre plans - of course Musselburgh already has a town centre plan developed by local people but it was ignored in favour of some new slabs and a slightly larger car park.
Musselburgh town centre - before and after. Transformational!

The Council Plan says 20mph zones will be rolled out "where demand exists" - so it's up to us as locals to get vocal. And again, sadly, there is no mention of air pollution. It is not a priority for the coming year.

Finally at Tuesday's meeting, we have a motion from the SNP opposition on the "overfunding" of the council tax freeze.

Given the numbers on the council (it's run by a Labour-Tory-Independent coalition) the motion won't be approved so it's clearly designed as a get-it-right-up-ye piece of posturing.

The motion references a report by the Scottish Parliament's financial scrutiny unit which estimates that the money provided by the Government to freeze the council tax has resulted in local authorities receiving more income than they would have done by increasing rates by inflation.

What the motion doesn't reference is the details, caveats and context of the report, such as:

"It is a cumulative figure and it only equates to around 1 per cent of the cumulative council tax income for local authorities over the same time period. Of course, there is no way of knowing by how much each local authority would have raised council tax."

So, in short, the SNP councillors are trumpeting a drop in the ocean and appear to be celebrating the lack of local democracy - who knows how much could have been raised to protect frontline services and jobs and minimise charges in East Lothian had the council had the freedom to do so?

An alternative motion would recognise the report's finding that over the eight years of the current SNP Government its budget has been cut by three per cent while it in turn has cut the local government budget by six per cent. But flinging any figures around is unlikely to get cross-party support. Perhaps a more constructive approach would be a motion recognising that Scotland's local government isn't local and doesn't govern, and reform is long overdue.

Central control of funding has exacerbated the flaws in the council tax, which is based on property values from 24 years ago. It's a broken system. The Scottish Government knows that reform is needed, and set up a local tax commission, due to report soon.

Local authorities should have freedom to raise funds and spend them, with a choice of progressive measures such as land, wealth and visitor taxes, as is commonplace in other European countries. We need to trust ourselves to do this stuff. That earlier figure of only 22 per cent of people feeling they can influence decisions in their part of East Lothian should be a call to action for our councillors.

Whatever the local tax commission's findings, the fact it has taken place shows the direction of travel. Those who plan to cling to an outdated, regressive tax freeze will be well and truly left behind.