Neil Findlay: Local Government in Scotland is on the brink

Last week’s Jimmy Reid Foundation research for UNISON highlighted that over the last five years the Scottish Government have received a 0.4% cut in the funding they receive from Westminster, yet they multiplied this by ten and passed on a 4% cut to the funding they give to Scotland’s councils.

This sees councils of all political persuasions facing year on year cuts to jobs (40,000 have gone) and to essential services such as education, social care, roads and environmental services. These are the services that civilise our society and are a key component of the glue that holds our communities together. But they are being eroded to the point that senior council officers fear they will soon only be able to provide statutory services. This cannot be allowed to go on.

Public services such as bin collection, libraries, youth clubs, day centres and pot hole filling may not be the sexiest of subjects but they are vital to the well being and cohesion of our community. So we have to show there is an alternative to this slash and burn approach.

The SNP’s inaction has left a space for debate about what kind of councils we want to see and where, if at all, we can fight back against the unwillingness from central government to do anything about it.

So this report is a very timely one which seeks to present workable alternatives that could revolutionise our councils and bring much needed funding back into local coffers rebuilding our services.

Some of the exciting and practical suggestions included :

- The introduction of a land value tax to replace the broken system of council tax, this would bring our system of taxation into the 21st century.

- The municipalisation of buses, energy, and other public services.

- Writing off council PFI/PPP/NPD debts

-Setting conditionality on business grants

- Introducing surcharges on actions that create pollution either directly or indirectly, so that companies and individuals are not profiting from destroying our environment

- A tourist tax, which would have a significant effect in cities like Edinburgh and other areas of the country.

These are just some of many considerations being pursued by trade unions and academics with an interest in improving the system we have here in Scotland. These are real and workable options that we can pursue now and having the ability to implement such changes are the reason we championed devolution.

The SNP like to take credit for council successes when they occur but blame councillors or Westminster when cuts fall. That is not what we fought for a Parliament for, not even close. If UK Government is doing something wrong we should call them out but we must also offer a better alternative. This is not about grievance – it is about going the extra mile to make sure we are doing right by our communities, addressing inequalities and building a society for the many.

Scottish Labour are calling for a greater focus on municipal empowerment, so that we can put the power back into local councils and tailor services to meet the needs of local people. This would also reinvigorate our democracy and give ordinary people the opportunity to take part in the decisions about where their money is spent and how.

In Labour run North Ayrshire measures of this kind have found great success by focusing on providing services where the market has failed. They plan to create a municipal bus service, energy, and even locally run mortgage schemes. This approach, taking a lead from the inspiring model championed in Preston by a Labour council, is looking to bring the focus of the economy back to the towns and villages whilst making sure that money stays in the community, not leaking from it. This should be the model for the future provision of services where they are funded and sustained for the long term.

I look forward to the Jimmy Reid Foundation/Unison report influencing our thinking in the coming weeks and months.


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