The outlook is certainly anything but sunny. It has been clear for some time that coping with a third consecutive year of frozen council tax and a severely pruned budget with worse to follow was well beyond the scope of “efficiency savings”. Deep cuts would be called for. Though it is several months before Scotland’s 32 local authorities set their budgets, we are beginning to see what such cuts might look like.
Glasgow has particular problems. Its council tax has been frozen for a year longer than other authorities. It has the highest concentration of poverty and deprivation of any city in Britain. Its pavements are pounded and its facilities used by many thousands of commuters who flood in each week day but pay council tax elsewhere. In addition, the downturn has drastically cut receipts from planning applications.
It is under these circumstances that officials have been instructed to think the unthinkable about cuts in facilities, services and personnel. So far, they have merely assembled a list of options, which is understood to include cuts in grants to the Citizens’ Theatre and other arts organisations and the hiving off of the Armadillo to the council’s arm’s-length body, Culture and Sport Glasgow. Nothing has been decided. Allowing such information to circulate in the name of transparent government is partly political. It seeks to throw the blame back on to the SNP government when relations with Holyrood are already tense after the Glasgow Airport Rail Link was scrapped.
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It makes sense for the council to examine its books and dispose of redundant office space, empty buildings and unused land, even though market conditions mean they will not get the best price for them. Far more worrying is the suggestion that buildings such as community centres that are in a dilapidated state should be closed rather than repaired and renovated, especially when these are in areas already devastated by deprivation and unemployment. One argument against requiring local authorities to apply swingeing cuts during an economic downturn is that it is precisely at such times that their clients require the most support. Also, throwing thousands of workers on to the dole merely accentuates the downturn and removes more spending power from the local economy.
In the past, Glasgow City Council has shown itself adept at employing financial sleight of hand to secure the biggest bang for its buck. If it can do so again, by securing advance contracts for cleaning and catering during the 2014 Commonwealth Games or creating a council-owned security firm to guard public buildings, then it should do so. The latter offers the additional potential bonus of keeping such contracts out of the hands of the criminal fraternity. The world is being required to tighten its belt and Glasgow cannot be expected to be an exception. However, at such times priority must go to preserving services for the neediest.