Without sounding like we’ve slipped into an episode of Game of Thrones, winter is coming. For councils, this is both literally and metaphorically the truth. While local authority Twitter accounts are tweeting the message about their winter weather preparations, I can’t help but think that for many in the public sector, winter might already be here. The storm in question is that of an ageing population and spiralling inequality, coupled with a decreasing budget and more demand placed on it than ever.
Council budgets for 2015/16 will be set February but effective forward planning means many are looking at the budget now. City of Edinburgh has launched an online tool to help encourage as many residents as possible to have their say on where money should be invested and saved in 2015/16 and beyond. At the end of September, councillors approved a report on the draft budget, along with a set of budget proposals for public consultation over the coming months.
Meanwhile, Highland has launched a consultation paper with detailed proposals for saving over £15m towards a total budget cut of £64m over the next five years.
The council has already achieved over £77.7m of cuts, including some through efficiency savings over the past five years. Highland has said the grant it receives continues to reduce in real terms due to inflation and increasing costs and the cash grant is not expected to increase over the next four years, which leaves a budget gap of £64m.
Glasgow City Council recently published its financial forecast for 2015/16 which shows that the city will need to find savings to meet a spending gap of £28.9m. The local authority said although the total local government budget in Scotland is the same as last year, Glasgow will again receive a smaller percentage of the available budget, resulting in a £13.1m cut from the Scottish Government.
Looking at this from the outside, the situation seems grim. Councils employ over 260,000 people and are responsible for around five million. Essential care, maintenance and help are provided by each local authority and we have come to rely on a certain level of service. So far, most councils have weathered the financial downturn without compulsory redundancies and without a significant drop in these services, but the issues facing them cannot be underestimated. Winter most certainly is coming and we can only hope Scotland’s councils are equipped to cope.