Don’t blame the Council, blame the Holyrood government
The Scottish Parliament was born from a desire to prevent Thatcherism and the kind of cuts to services that are being imposed by the SNP today.
During the session just begun, the Scottish Parliament will mark its 20th birthday. I feel confident that celebrations are already being pondered and the bunting waiting to be hung.
Yet this week’s events confirmed a requirement for self-appraisal rather than self-congratulation. The thin gruel of a legislative programme is further diluted by the knowledge, based on past experience, that most of it will never happen anyway.
What is Holyrood for and how does it go about its business? These are reasonable questions in a week when satisfaction with public services – the main responsibility of devolved governments – plummeted to new lows.
Even the centre-piece of the SNP’s programme merits more indictment than accolade. The claim that £50 million a year more will be spent on mental health services came on the day it was confirmed that child mental health waiting times are the worst on record.
In other words, the announcement is reactive in face a mounting crisis rather than guided by priorities that might have prevented it developing in the first place. It will require a team of auditors to track whether the money is delivered as promised.
You now need quite a long memory to recall that Scotland – doing things differently from the rest of the UK for decades before Holyrood was heard of – used to lead the world on important areas of social policy. Our schooling system, the treatment of young offenders and the right of children with special needs to be educated are just a few examples.
A Scottish generation has grown up with little appreciation of that history and a correspondingly low expectation of what Holyrood – with its panoply of powers and a cast of hundreds – should be capable of delivering. The lack of creativity in policy-making is its most disappointing feature.
Twenty years ago, devolution was won on the back of the Thatcher folk-memory and the mood that a bulwark was required against “the same thing happening again”. As Donald Dewar noted when offered the title for himself, “the only parent of devolution was Margaret Thatcher”.
Few who voted at that time would have foreseen the day when local councils – who throughout the two previous decades had been their chief protectors against cuts – would be treated worse by a Scottish Government than it is itself being treated by a Tory Government at Westminster.
Indisputably that is what has happened. According to the Scottish Parliament’s own research unit, since 2013-14, council budgets have been cut at over five times the rate of the Scottish Government’s own budget leaving a shortfall of £800 million.
Councils are struggling with the imminent prospect of even more stringent cuts. Small wonder our streets are filthy, our roads pot-holed, our educational standards challenged on all fronts, and so on. Those most dependent on public services pay the highest price.
These are all services which local councils are expected to provide and devolution was supposed to defend on our behalf, in times of icy blasts. Instead a Scottish Government has become the facilitator-plus rather than the protector.
The true bulwark on Scotland’s behalf is our old friend, the Barnett Formula, which guarantees that £1,900 a year more of public money, per head of population, will be spent in Scotland than in England. Yet that is another line of defence the Nationalists want to surrender.
Every political party should use the 20th anniversary as a peg on which to hang ideas for how Holyrood could actually make Scotland a better, fairer place for its citizens – and also raise its own standards of debate and scrutiny which are currently pathetic.
Raising taxes is a lazy answer when there is such an obvious need for a fundamental review of priorities and transparency in how money is spent – along with a bit of flair in using the powers to do things differently.
One certainty is that until the Scottish Government stops using local councils as a shield for its own priorities, satisfaction ratings with public services will continue to fall, which will make a mockery of what, two decades ago, devolution was widely but wrongly assumed to guarantee.