ALL local authorities face the dilemma of how to protect the most vital frontline services while cutting their budgets.
As The Herald reveals today, Glasgow City Council, Scotland's largest, must save £70.4m over the next two years. That makes unpopular cuts to services inevitable.
The council's draft budget is an exercise in identifying priorities. That has resulted in a degree of protection for education and social work. Since these departments together accounting for 70% of council spending, however, they will bear the brunt of the cuts and both will be forced to make savings which will reduce the quality of life for many people. In better economic times, many of the proposals would be unacceptable. Among the more worrying is the ending of the handyman service for people receiving home care.
Glasgow must be recognised for grasping the nettle of cutting expenditure at an early stage and in advance of the council elections, producing savings of £130m so far. However, a significant staff reduction (3000 have left the council since 2010 and another 300 will follow) and the hiving off of services such as leisure and culture, car parks and home care to arm's-length bodies have left very little scope for further efficiencies. That means cuts will now impact directly on service users. Inevitably, any reduction in services will be most keenly felt by the most vulnerable groups, such as the elderly and long-term sick who are already feeling the effects of welfare benefits cuts. Among them are people with learning disabilities whose day centres are scheduled to close.
The programme of rebuilding or refurbishing all primary schools will continue at a cost of £250m over the next five years. Rationalisation of school provision is a key component of all councils' spending plans and reduced maintenance costs on older schools will result in future savings. But the timetable must be questioned against education cuts that will reduce the number of learning support teachers, take teachers out of nursery schools and change school timetables so that fewer teachers are needed.
In an attempt to keep damage to the minimum by raising revenue, charges will be increased across a range of services including street parking, nursery education, hiring school halls, funerals, and school meals. This cannot be avoided but local authorities must recognise that theirs are not the only budgets being squeezed in these straitened times. A 10% increase in nursery fees, for example, will be a challenge for parents on low incomes. If charges are raised, concessions must be readily available, including for community organisations which provide after-school or sports activities for young people.
The council has complained that Glasgow's share of the overall allocation to Scotland's 32 local authorities has been reduced by the SNP Government at Holyrood, requiring the city to make deeper cuts than other councils. However, this is a result of a reduction in the levels of multiple deprivation in Glasgow. That is a positive development and measures to reduce them further, such as increasing the budget for foster and kinship care, are a welcome indicator that, faced with the most difficult budget decisions in decades, Glasgow City Council is doing the best it can to protect priority services. Nevertheless, the cuts will have a damaging impact and, once the full extent of other authorities' budgets is known, the sustainability of the freeze on council tax must be scrutinised.