In recent weeks, the SNP administration has railed ad nauseam about being short-changed by the UK government (as if the Scots were entitled to be immune from spending restraint), while Labour insisted doggedly that, in fact, the cash in the pot marked Scotland would rise by £600m.

Finance Secretary John Swinney finally got down yesterday to the serious business of saying how he would cut his £35bn cloth. Regardless of how the figures were spun, there was going to be a requirement for major cuts, because of a number of extra pressures, including ominous holes in the pension schemes of teachers as well as fire and police officers.

The Glasgow Airport Rail Link (Garl) was the major

casualty, even though it featured in Glasgow’s bid for the 2014 Commonwealth Games. It is a further blow to the airport, which is already slipping behind Edinburgh. Scrapping the rail link will save £170m, including more than £60m next year. Glasgow and Paisley MSPs, desperate for the jobs bonanza such a major infrastructure project would bring, are understandably incandescent but, given the size of the saving, this was a sensible decision in the context of protecting front-line services.

Though special contingency arrangements will need to be made for 2014, there were always doubts about Garl’s value for money, after the Glasgow Crossrail scheme returned to the back-burner. Without Crossrail to bring Garl into an integrated central Scotland rail network, there were serious doubts about likely occupancy outwith peak hours. Also, in a theme now familiar with major Scottish infrastructure projects, the cost had ballooned alarmingly. Why does Scotland lack the rigour of other European countries that manage to produce huge building projects on time and within budget?

The second big loser is affordable housing. Its budget falls by £173m next year, the equivalent of a 27% cut. Mr Swinney explained that this was to repay money that was brought forward this year to kickstart the paralysed Scottish building industry and blamed the Treasury for refusing to carry over the budget for a further year. The unvarnished truth is that less important pet projects of the SNP could and should have been sacrificed or delayed to keep this work going. A combination of factors, including council house sales, demolition of old stock and the difficulties facing first-time buyers seeking mortgages has produced a housing crisis in Scotland that must be tackled. Also, abruptly turning off the spending tap for social housing risks plunging the construction industry back into crisis.

This is a bigger priority than increasing Scotland’s European budget, offering middle class schoolchildren free school meals, abolishing charges on prescriptions (which the most needy already receive free), or funding the thus far unproductive Scottish Futures Trust. As Mr Swinney himself pointed out, his budget constitutes a first draft. In a minority administration, it is up to opposition parties to combine to improve it.

There will be much more talk about cuts in the months to come, especially if the Scottish Government goes ahead with its stated intention of freezing council tax for a third year. This merely shifts the onus for making cuts from central to local government. Is local democracy well served by denying councils the scope to give electors the choice between holding down tax and protecting services?