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01.02.16

Cosla urges all councils to reject ‘forceful’ Scottish local government deal

Scottish council leaders are urging authorities to reject the government’s “totally unacceptable” finance settlement for 2016-17, despite central threats to cut councils off if they defy the deal’s terms.

Leaders at Cosla (Convention of Scottish Local Authorities) voted by 21 to 7 on Friday (29 January) to reject the deal, which they branded “an affront to local democracy”. The body’s president, Cllr David O’Neill, said the package’s 3.5% funding cut would hit the most vulnerable Scottish communities the hardest.

Speaking after the group’s meeting, he said: “Cosla has today rejected the package of measures for local government as totally unacceptable and an attack on our democratic mandate. The £350m cut is bad enough, but the way in which it will now be imposed on individual councils is even worse.

“The Scottish government is basically forcing individual councils into having to accept the deal. Sadly, I fully accept that individual councils, due to the horrendous sanctions they would face, will find that they have no other option but to give in to central direction on this occasion.

“In imposing the deal on individual councils, the most vulnerable in our communities will be left to pick up the pieces.”

The Scottish government’s finance settlement supports maintaining the country’s council tax freeze, which has been in place since 2007. If councils defy this priority, which some are considering doing in face of budget pressures, they face losing some of the government’s funding.

Talks had been taking place between council leaders and finance secretary John Swinney, who has been accused of “hammering councils’ budgets”, “cutting local services to the bone” and “bullying communities into accepting his cuts” by Labour and Lib Dem leaders.

Jenny Laing, leader of Aberdeen City Council (which is not part of Cosla) and Scottish Local Government Partnership (SLGP) convener, said the deal proposes “the most significant grant cut ever applied” to Scottish councils.

“And when we've carried out our civic duty to question the settlement on behalf of our residents, we've been held to ransom by the Scottish Government's attempt to control decisions which should be made by democratically-elected representatives,” Laing added.

“The four SLGP councils provide services to more than 25% of citizens across Scotland. Refusing to give us appropriate levels of funding and trying to dictate to local government shows blatant disregard for those people.

“In addition, there are also questions around the legality of the minister's right to tie our hands in this way and we'll be seeking legal advice on that.”

‘A deal worth taking’

Responding to these allegations, Swinney called the government’s package a deal worth taking: “Our funding proposals deliver a strong but challenging financial settlement for local government, despite cuts to the central budget by the UK government.

“It is a deal that will see an additional £250m invested in social care, it will help councils deliver the Living Wage giving 40,000 people a pay rise, it will freeze council tax for a ninth consecutive year, and it protects the pupil-teacher ratio, helping improve attainment.

“Overall, as a percentage of total revenue expenditure, the reduction in local authority budgets is around just 2%. So while I recognise this will not be easy for councils to accommodate, some of the language used to describe the deal has been unnecessary. I hope and expect cooler heads will comes to realise this is a deal councils can and should accept.”

The deadline for accepting the deal has been pushed back for a second time to 9 February, a move also attacked by Cosla’s president.

“That aside the fact that he has only given us an extra three days to accept the worst financial deal in over a decade simply demonstrates Mr Swinney’s misunderstanding of local councils processes – if a council has not met to set its budget already or does not have a council meeting scheduled for tomorrow or Monday, this extension is useless,” Cllr O’Neill said.

“Given Mr Swinney only furnished councils with the final proposals for the settlement today it is difficult to see how he expects any council to comply with this timescale.”

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