COUNCILS are in trouble. Councils are always in trouble, you may think. It seems some report or other is forever warning Scotland’s 32 local authorities are flat broke.

This week the Accounts Commission, which polices and advises local government, issued its latest opinion. Councils, it concluded, are in trouble.

They had “gone beyond the point where making savings is enough”, said acting chairman Tim McKay. Only “radical change” would suffice.

It’s easy to see why weary scepticism is often the response to such events.

Local government receives and spends objectively vast amounts of money. This year almost £12 billion, a fifth of the Scottish budget.

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True, the council umbrella body Cosla said it wasn’t enough at budget time. But after the usual minute-to-midnight bung of £100m, things went quiet again. It can’t be that bad, right?

Cosla has a habit of doing this. In the early days of devolution, when Labour led the then Scottish Executive coalition, it led Cosla too.

The Cosla leadership felt it could talk frankly to ministers in private, and they certainly talked frankly back. Apart from the odd skirmish at Cosla conference, it was fairly civil.

The politicians didn’t want public rows, and Cosla calculated it would get more with honey than vinegar.

When the SNP came to power in 2007, and Cosla remained Labour-dominated, a different dynamic took hold, but it had a broadly similar outcome.

At first, Alex Salmond’s administration had a love-in with local government, agreeing to a “historic concordat” that removed a lot of the budget ringfencing that councils hated.

Later, after the Crash and as money got tighter, Cosla fretted the SNP would exact revenge if it started agitating too loudly for more funds, and rather than take the risk it kept schtum.

Slowly, the ringfencing crept back, but still councils hoped quietly for better days to come.

Last year, SNP gains in the council elections led to Cosla’s first SNP president.

As in the early years of devolution, one party now dominates central and local government, and the incentive on both sides is to keep disagreements out of public view.

So when the Accounts Commission adds to the heap of warnings that councils are in a bad way, it wouldn’t be fair to blame public scepticism on Cosla crying wolf. Quite the opposite.

It hasn’t raised the alarm enough, whimpering it they should have been bellowing.

The result, after years of half-hearted muttering, is that councils are on the back foot when it comes to having their troubles heard, even when a gruesome confluence of events means they are now extremely serious indeed.

The Accounts Commission report isn’t a standard annual update. It’s the final part of a three-year series into the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath.

It’s a chilling read. Even before Covid arrived, council service performance was “beginning to stall” due to long-term underfunding by ministers and rising demand.

While spending on the “protected” areas of education, adult social care and looking after children rose in the decade to 2021/22, spending on “unprotected” services such as roads, cleansing, planning and culture and leisure took a brutal hit.

Since the pandemic, some services have recovered, but there are “growing backlogs and declining performance in some areas”. Money is exceptionally tight relative to demand for services, which is rising because of the cost-of-living crisis and an ageing population.

Worse, a quarter of council budgets are effectively ringfenced for Scottish Government priorities,

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