THE relationship between councils and the Scottish government has become so “toxic” amid arguments over budgets and responsibilities that it is now on the brink of outright collapse, the most senior official in local government has warned.

Rory Mair said relations between central and local government were close to becoming “truly horrible”, with services suffering as the two sides waged a destructive public feud.

In an exclusive interview with the Sunday Herald to mark his retirement today after 14 years at the helm of the council umbrella group Cosla, Mair urged both tiers of government to work in partnership for the greater good.

“We’re at a place where you can’t go any further with this without it breaking down totally. It’s a time to say stop, let’s re-calibrate this relationship. It will take trust on both sides,” he said.

The intervention comes amid an increasingly bitter row over a £350m cut to council budgets in 2016-17, and a threat by Finance Secretary John Swinney to impose multiple sanctions on any local authority that tries to raise funds by breaking the council tax freeze.

By a vote of 21-7, council leaders rejected Swinney’s latest budget offer on Friday, calling it “wholly misguided” and a threat to communities. Only SNP-led councils backed the plan.

However Mair said the budget was just one of many symptoms pointing to a wider breakdown with government.

In 2007, the new SNP minority administration signed what Alex Salmond hailed as an “historic concordat” with Cosla, paving the way for a new deal on funding and services.

Mair said the collegial attitude changed rapidly when the SNP won a majority in 2011 and could simply impose its will, then changed again when Nicola Sturgeon became First Minister in 2014 and split responsibility for local government among several ministers.

Sturgeon has not met Cosla president David O’Neill for over a year.

“We have not had a relationship with Nicola,” Mair said, more in sorrow than in anger.

“We also used to speak to government special advisers [on policy] on a regular basis. We don’t really speak to special advisers now at all. We just don’t have that relationship.”

The “drift” between central and local government was now tipping toward a crisis because of the budget, he said, partly because the cuts were twice what Cosla expected, and partly because councils felt the government was not being honest about the settlement.

Mair said ministers had presented the budget as being about council reform when it was actually “a cuts exercise”, and claimed the reduction was 2 per cent when it was 3.5.

The threat of “draconian” financial penalties for raising council tax was also about the government demonstrating raw power, rather than doing the right thing.

“It’s coercion. That’s what it is. You can’t get round it. If you up the sanctions high enough, no council leader could take that risk," he said.

“Scotland and local government have the power to raise more tax. So why are we keeping tax the same and making public service cuts? That’s the very definition of an austerity budget.

“If you self-deny the ability to raise more money and you decide that the way to deal with a downturn in resources is to cut, however you dress it up, that’s an austerity budget.”

He went on: “The combination of those symptoms is pretty toxic - bad budget, no regular meetings, a feeling that control is slipping back to the centre, maybe even some disinformation.

“I don’t want to see that carry on. I’ll take my share of the blame. I’m not trying to avoid that. But you’ve got a lot of symptoms that point to a fairly fundamental problem.

“My worry is that if we don’t see some real movement from government, the only sensible choice that local government can make is that every time something bad happens we’re in the press saying ‘Not on guys’, and taking whatever rearguard action we can.

“I spent my first years at Cosla doing that - it’s a soul-destroying business. You’re doing nothing positive at all. All you’re doing is waiting for a fight and picking it.”

Mair, 59, who had a liver transplant in 2012, added the relationship with the SNP government had been largely positive in the past - and that was all the more reason to salvage it now.

“If the relationship was stable and on the up I wouldn’t be saying this. I'd take it on the chin. But we’re not just having the odd knockback. The very nature of the partnership is degrading.”

A government spokesman said: “Ministers and councillors have a great deal of direct contact. Despite cuts to our budget as a result the UK Government’s continuing austerity programme, the Scottish Government has always treated local government very fairly.”