Cllr Meghan Gallacher is the Leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Group on North Lanarkshire Council.
Before the Coronavirus outbreak, Councils across Scotland were under severe financial strain due to a decade of cuts administered by the SNP-led Scottish Government, exacerbated by a 10-year Council Tax freeze throttling income generation. Local Authorities appear to be an afterthought when it comes to the Nationalists and you could be mistaken for believing that they are an inconvenience to the current Scottish Administration. However, as cases of Coronavirus increased throughout the country in March, councils in Scotland found themselves at the forefront of the pandemic, providing support to many people and businesses.
It is easy to underestimate the vast amount of work carried out by local authorities in Scotland. Councils are the backbone of the governance structure as they deliver policies approved by the Scottish Government – usually with no additional funding, guidance, or resources to implement them. Coronavirus has outlined the strength and struggles local government faces. Instead of dictating to Councils, the Scottish Government should fund them properly to allow them to make more localised decisions, based on their own individual objectives.
Take North Lanarkshire for example. My Council has coped reasonably well throughout this difficult time, despite reducing working employees to 25 per cent across the public sector. Council staff have managed to administer grants to thousands of businesses, delivered care packages to those shielding, opened facilities to assist key workers, worked successfully with the local NHS Board, and delivered a phased schools return on the 11th August. However, they have struggled with other service areas such as Early Learning and Childcare, due to the Scottish Government pulling the rug from under them by immediately pausing the programme.
As we are now in phase three of the easing of lockdown, the financial cost implications of Coronavirus are beginning to mount up. Most decisions taken during lockdown were necessary, however, we are beginning to learn of the detrimental impact this could have on services the Council currently provides. In February this year, Councillors voted to make roughly £25 million worth of savings which impacted service areas such as education, social care, and environmental services. Without the additional pressures of Coronavirus, the Council was at breaking point. There are barely any non-statutory services left to cut. Now, with added cost implications of COVID-19, North Lanarkshire Council could face an up to £40m budget gap before the end of the next financial year. This will lead to a revised budget where councillors will need to make more difficult decisions to balance the books.
North Lanarkshire Council is not in a unique position. Many other Councils throughout Scotland will have to reconsider the budget decisions they made in February, to accommodate the additional cost pressures of Coronavirus. The UK Government has delivered for Scottish Councils during this pandemic and included within their package of support was £155 million for councils to keep public services open for those that need them. However, at one point, I did not think councils would receive this funding, as the SNP wanted them to specify how they would spend this money before handing it over.
But councils need more support from the Scottish Government. The Finance Secretary, Kate Forbes, has not been forthcoming in highlighting a recovery plan for Councils to replenish their finances and instead, has flippantly told local government to use its reserves before knocking on the Scottish Government’s door for more cash. If Forbes had any understanding of local government finances, she would be aware that Councils do not have a lot of reserves left, due to the austerity inflicted on them by her own Scottish Government. This shows that the SNP do not understand Councils, their structure, or their importance.
The actions of the Scottish Government have left Councils in a precarious position. Their future is uncertain and the handling of finances before and during Coronavirus has left them more exposed than ever. The Scottish Government must stop the overbearing micromanagement of Local Government finances and fund them properly so they can prosper.
Make no doubt about it. Councils provided a lifeline during the Coronavirus pandemic; it is now time for the Scottish Government to return the favour.