MOST of Scotland's 32 local authorities faced with cutting their budgets by unprecedented amounts are counting on staff reductions to save the lion's share of their outlay.
In the struggle to simultaneously protect frontline services and achieve substantial services, voluntary redundancies and early retirement will result in the number of local government employees across the country being reduced by many thousands. Since almost all councils are committed to avoiding compulsory job losses, there is a remarkable absence of protest. However, the effect will be significant, especially in places where the local authority is the largest employer and in areas of high unemployment such as North Lanarkshire where 750 jobs will be lost over the next three years as part of a £62.4 million spending cut.
Despite universal adherence to the principle of protecting basic services, there will be disappointment and dismay at many decisions, such as reducing the number of primary one teachers in Renfrewshire. Once statutory duties are fulfilled, there is limited room for manoeuvre with council tax frozen under the Concordat with the Scottish Government. That means prices for other services must be increased. In places where councils still have housing stock, rents will rise, for example by an average of £2.95 a week in Renfrewshire and £1.92 in Falkirk. Other increases will result from a reduction in subsidies, for everything from school meals (to be reduced to the statutory minimum in Renfrewshire) to theatre tickets. Other authorities, including Glasgow, have already increased charges for parking, nursery places and school meals.
All cuts will hurt the people who rely on them but the most dramatic examples are where a service is axed completely. That was illustrated by the decision of councillors in the Western Isles to end the Barra to Benbecula leg of the inter-island air service while the Benbecula to Stornoway link will be reduced to three days a week without a contribution from the NHS.
No authority has mirrored Moray's controversial decision to axe its entire arts budget but the funding of libraries, museums and community arts projects is inevitably under review in many areas.
No-one can dispute that today's councillors have an onerous and unenviable task. All have had to balance the books between cuts and ways of raising income. Those who have already begun to reduce expenditure have managed to avoid the deepest cuts but it is clear from the councils that have agreed spending plans over the next two or three years that further savings must be made. This will require a continuing assessment of charges and provision. Councillors across the country may be forgiven for breathing a sigh of relief on passing their budgets this week but their dilemma over what to prioritise is far from over.
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