Finding savings is “critical” for Scottish councils – report

Written by Kate Shannon on 5 April 2018 in News

The Accounts Commission’s said councils are balancing funding cuts of 9.6 per cent over the past eight years with increasing demand

Poverty: Picture credit - Holyrood

Finding savings is "increasingly critical" for councils dealing with ongoing reductions in funding, according to Scotland’s local government spending watchdog.

The Accounts Commission’s annual overview report said councils are balancing a real terms funding cut of 9.6 per cent over the past eight years with increasing demand, particularly from a growing older population.

The commission said without service redesign or policy changes councils could be spending nearly 80 per cent of their budgets on education and social work alone by 2025/26.

It said councils now need to clearly set out the impact budget reductions are having so they can plan for the future.

Graham Sharp, chair of the Accounts Commission, said: "Councils are facing the major challenge of reducing costs, maintaining services for an ageing population and putting significant policy and legislative change into practice - all at a time of increasing uncertainty.

"They have done a lot to manage the impact of budget reductions, but with forecast funding gaps higher than current levels of reserves for some councils the delivery of savings is now increasingly critical.

"Decisive leadership, innovative thinking around service delivery, and robust planning based on community engagement is now more important than ever to ensure council services stay sustainable."

The annual report found that some councils have maintained or improved their performance in a number of areas despite budget reductions, for example, some councils are spending less on secondary schools but pupils from all backgrounds are performing better.

However, other evidence suggests budget cuts are having a negative impact, with public satisfaction falling in areas such as refuse collection, street cleaning and libraries.

The commission also found that some services have borne the brunt of funding reductions. Planning department staff numbers have been cut by over 20 per cent in the last decade, and environmental staff by eight per cent between 2016 and 2017.

Adult social care services are also not keeping up with demand and older people are often facing long waits for an assessment of their needs and a further wait to receive their care package.

Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) resources spokesperson Councillor Gail Macgregor said COSLA has been lobbying the Scottish Government for years about “the growing pressure” from an ageing population. 

She said: “The commission rightly highlights that over and above budget cuts councils are continually faced with uncertainty and an ever demanding policy landscape from Scottish Government.

“One year settlements are debilitating for councils – COSLA is clear that we need multi-year settlements to enable us to provide long term, sustainable, efficient and effective financial planning and essential service delivery.

“In addition as the report also recognises councils have worked hard to deliver efficiency savings whilst tirelessly balancing local services but those choices are now becoming restrictive and the decisions being taken are much more about what services must and need to be delivered. 

“Councils have continued, again as the report recognises, to take hard and difficult decisions, amid high public expectations and we have delivered for our communities as best as we can.

“Councils have already transformed and will continue to do so, but it is not an overnight fix. Public sector pay is also a recent example of where expectations have been raised with no funding from Scottish Government attached. 

“We know a lot of our funding comes for specific policy areas, this can stifle local autonomy and real ‘needs-based’ flexibility. Many of these policies place restrictions on councils and present immense pressures on other essential council services - a number of new Scottish Government policies have been directed towards particular areas and this targeting is not always helpful.”  

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