In the frontline: a demanding year for councils and charities
A sense of community: never has it mattered as much as during the COVID pandemic.
Stories have spilled out of Scotland’s towns, villages, suburbs and tenements of people pulling together. A recruitment drive for volunteers registered 21,000 people on its first day on March 30.
In supporting communities, a huge responsibility has fallen on local authorities and the third sector. Both were already concerned about shrinking budgets before the pandemic began.
Councils have had to mobilise at speed to provide existing services like education, social care, social work support and refuse collection in new ways, as well as offering critical new services to support the vulnerable, such as delivering meals and essential supplies, and administering financial aid for businesses such as the Small Business Support Grant.
COSLA describes the efforts of council workforces as “heroic”. A spokesperson said: “They have worked closely with the Scottish Government to ensure business grants, the provision of education hubs, housing of homeless and much more have been, and continue to be, delivered."
Councils have provided 162,000 free school meals, been in contact with 175,000 individuals who are shielding, handled 195,000 calls to wellbeing lines and helplines, processed more than 101,000 business grant applications and awarded £944m of business grants.
The Scottish Government announced £350m for communities and local government to respond to COVID-19 in March. This funding includes the Food Fund; the Wellbeing Fund to support organisations like charities providing important services; the Supporting Communities Fund to support community “anchor organisations”; and the Third Sector Resilience Fund, for charities in financial difficulties.
Two in five charities reported a rise in demand between March and May, according to the Scottish Council of Voluntary Organisations (SCVO), particularly those in the health and social care sphere.
But the third sector predicts a 30 per cent drop in income this year.
Charities also expect a post-Covid surge in demand for services such as children and families, health and mental health. “The consequences of the pandemic for the sector are severe,” states SCVO. “The reduction of income from fundraising, trading, service delivery and increased costs will have long-term consequences.”
Funding worries caused by COVID have also affected councils, with COSLA estimating in July that the crisis has led to £739m in “additional costs” and warning of council tax hikes unless legislation is amended to allow the deficit to be paid off over a longer period of time.
Against this challenging backdrop, the Scottish Government’s flagship pledge to provide all three- and four-year-olds with 1,140 hours of free childcare by August, set to be delivered by local authorities, has been postponed for at least a year.
It was already an eventful year for councils before COVID. The budget deal struck between the SNP and the Scottish Greens in February focused on council funding. COSLA said £1bn of funding was needed to fund new spending commitments, make up for years of cuts and overcome the effects of inflation. The organisation said 60 per cent of council budgets are now accounted for by national services delivered locally, such as education, health and social care, leaving a smaller pot for other services such as roads, buses, planning, community learning, libraries, tourism and business support.
The final deal featured a settlement that was worth £95m more than originally mooted (as well as featuring a free bus travel scheme for the under-19s). COSLA expressed disappointment, saying it only made good the underfunding of new and existing commitments required by the Scottish Government.
Both the UK and Scottish governments have been keen to highlight the benefits of their jointly funded regional growth deals. The Prime Minister Boris Johnson, mindful of polling on rising support for independence, used a trip to Orkney in July to announce £100m for the Islands Growth Deal (£50m coming from each government). A £90m package for Falkirk was announced on the same day. Deals for Borderlands and Moray were announced last summer, and Argyll and Bute in October
Councils’ representations to government resulted in the promise of a Transient Visitor Levy Bill in the Programme for Government in September, giving councils the discretionary power to apply a tax on visitors staying overnight. The programme also included a Civil Partnership Bill, making civil partnerships available to mixed sex couples.
It was the first of a crop of new and promised powers for local authorities.
In October, the Transport Bill was passed, giving councils the right to impose a Workplace Parking Levy on businesses, an annual fee for each parking space provided to employees. The bill also gave local authorities and regional transport partnerships more power over local bus services and the authority to enforce city low emission zones.
Housing Minister Kevin Stewart then announced in January that councils would be given new powers to regulate short term lets, reflecting concerns that in some areas the proliferation of holiday lets make it harder for people to find homes.
Shortfalls of social housing continues to be a serious problem. In January, the housing charity Shelter said that councils were failing to deliver their legal obligations to homeless people on an “industrial scale”, reporting that the number of children living in temporary housing had crept up to 7,252, the highest since records began in 2002. The charity also reported that Scottish councils had failed to offer temporary accommodation to homeless people 10,840 times since January 2017.
Shelter said that the figures highlighted the “chronic shortage of social housing” in Scotland.
Kevin Stewart said in March that in the year to September, the number of completed homes for social rent increased by 16 per cent compared to the previous year.
At Holyrood, one of the most significant legislative developments was a bill on ending period poverty introduced by Labour’s Monica Lennon. The communities secretary Aileen Campbell announced backing for the bill in February, in principle, despite concerns about its practicability and affordability, saying it would work with other parties to improve the proposals. Lennon’s bill, which proposes free period products for anyone who needs them, would be a world first.
Campbell intends to stand down at the next Holyrood election, but with the effects of COVID to manage, there will be no let-up until then. Coronavirus has had a disproportionate effect on deprived communities and the vulnerable. In recognition of this, in June, Campbell announced the formation of a social renewal expert advisory board to drive progress towards greater equality during the recovery.
Their work is likely to continue for some time.