By Jenny Laing

ANY Herald reader who has children at school, an elderly relative in a public sector care home, or who drives to work or the shops should be worried. The same goes for users of local libraries and leisure centres, to say nothing of council house tenants and those who simply like their local streets kept clean.

The future of all services people rely on councils to deliver is shrouded in doubt. In the present financial climate, our services will be threatened by cuts in the months and years ahead, as was reflected in the Autumn Statement.

We don’t know if Scottish ministers will simply pass on the toxic parcel of austerity to local authorities or if they are willing to stand alongside councils to try to limit the damage.

The Scottish Government has given few hints but our experience in recent years gives us cause for concern. The share of public cash funnelled through councils to provide key services has dropped hugely; according to Audit Scotland’s latest overview of local government by 8.5 per cent, or almost £1 billion, between 2010 and 2014.

This comes at a time of additional pressures faced by councils, including demographic changes such as an ageing population putting additional demands on our services. In addition, local authorities are being asked to fund pay awards, the removal of rebates on national insurance and pension costs.

Councils face substantial cuts to budgets, forcing each local authority to cut back on services, especially in non-statutory areas, and lose thousands of jobs.

The Scottish Government hasn’t just been silent on these issues. Ministers have ignored our efforts to work together to mitigate the impact.

The Scottish Local Government Partnership (SLPG), which represents councils providing services to one in four Scots, has been trying for two months for a meeting with ministers to discuss the funding crisis facing councils, and how the government could use existing powers to protect public services.

Scottish ministers, and Cabinet Secretary John Swinney in particular, have failed to engage with us. If they don’t speak to the SLGP they ignore councils that not only represent one quarter of the Scottish population, but also areas that produce 47 per cent of economic output.

By engaging with councils, ministers could end the uncertainty about services. We await word on our government grants before we can finalise our budgets for next year, and that depended in part on the Autumn Statement.

But for many weeks and months there has been nothing to prevent Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney making it clear they will work with councils to maintain the vital services so many rely upon.

Even before the Scotland Bill reaches the statute books, the Scottish Government has the ability to raise, or reduce, income tax in Scotland by 10p in the pound and it can borrow up to £500 million for revenue purposes and up to £2.2 billion for capital projects.

These limits will be increased under the Scotland Bill going through the Houses of Parliament. But ministers could use their existing powers to guarantee that we continue to deliver vital services, including schools, housing, roads, economic development and looking after the old, the young and the most vulnerable in society.

It’s not as if we are asking for a blank cheque. Indications suggest that pressures on public finances across the UK will ease around 2020 as economic growth ends the drive for austerity. We want Scottish ministers to use their powers prudently and sensibly to mitigate the need for cuts in the meantime.

At present it seems as if they are happy to fiddle while those services burn. They blame Westminster for austerity but they make the situation worse by cutting the proportion of public funding that goes to councils. Uncertainty about the grants for next year adds to the problem.

It's time the Scottish Government treated councils as genuine partners. For years we have managed declining budgets while trying to protect those who most need public services. The least we expect is a grown-up discussion with ministers about how we work together to protect our communities from austerity.

Jenny Laing is convener of the Scottish Local Government Partnership, which comprises Aberdeen City, Glasgow City, Renfrewshire and South Lanarkshire councils. She is leader of Aberdeen City Council.