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26 February 2015

Glasgow’s missing millions? Labour should look at themselves, not the SNP

Glasgow's budget cuts are due to the austerity agenda of the Conservatives, not the Sturgeon administration, an SNP councillor says.

By Susan Aitken

Earlier this week, Glasgow Labour councillor Matt Kerr wrote a piece for us, blaming the SNP for the cuts to that city’s budget. Susan Aitken, a SNP councillor, responds below.

Councillor Matt Kerr’s claims that the dastardly SNP Scottish government is deliberately starving Glasgow of local government funding are, as we say in Glasgow, pure mince.

The Scottish government does indeed provide the cash for the overall local government funding pot – but it doesn’t decide the allocations. Those are determined through a funding formula agreed by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA), which then makes a recommendation to the Scottish government.

COSLA is Labour-dominated. It has always been Labour-dominated. What’s more, until recently, the Labour leader of Glasgow City Council was a member of COSLA’s Leaders’ Group and Glasgow sent the biggest single delegation of any local authority to the Convention, all but two of whom were Labour councillors – Councillor Kerr among them.

These are the people who have always determined Glasgow’s and every other Scottish local authority’s budget allocations. So if Councillor Kerr and his Labour colleagues are unhappy at Glasgow’s share of the pot, they should look a lot closer to home to find out who’s responsible.  It is Glasgow’s Labour administration that has, according to their own claims, failed to convince even their own Labour colleagues of the city’s case for a bigger share.

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In fact, Glasgow Labour has made no attempt to review or reform the allocations formula – rejecting a 2009 offer from Finance Secretary John Swinney to work on a review, at a time when current leader Gordon Matheson held the role of City Treasurer. But then that might actually have delivered some kind of constructive outcome for the city, and Glasgow Labour has made it pretty clear they have no interest in that. Instead of staying in COSLA to fight Glasgow’s corner, Glasgow Labour has recently exited the organisation in an adolescent strop, leaving Glasgow isolated and without any influence at all when it comes to budget discussions.

There’s no question that Scottish local government has had to take a hit in recent years – entirely as a result of the impact on the Scottish block grant of the Westminster austerity agenda, that Councillor Kerr so airily dismisses. Thanks to the efforts of John Swinney to protect local services as much as possible, in the face of cuts of over 10% to his own budget in the past 5 years, the cuts in Scotland have though been far shallower than those south of the border. Mr Swinney has also had to use significant chunks of his budget to mitigate the impact of Westminster policies, including half a billion pounds to write off the bedroom tax in Scotland.

A small number of authorities – including several Labour-led ones – have experienced small overall increases to their funding through the formula as a direct result of population increases, but Glasgow is far from alone in experiencing an overall reduction (alongside SNP-led Dundee City, for example). Nonetheless, Glasgow continues to receive the highest combined revenue and capital per capita funding allocation of any mainland authority (the three island and one part-island authority are recognised as special cases with significantly higher service delivery costs) and is second only to Labour West Dunbartonshire (by a whole £2 per head) in per capita revenue funding.

Glasgow also receives more additional funding from the Scottish government than any other part of Scotland – including, for example, the largest share of the bedroom tax mitigation funds and the Scottish Welfare Fund. Glasgow’s Labour administration rightly point to the enormous success of last year’s Commonwealth Games – but tend to conveniently overlook the fact that 80% of the Games funding came from the SNP government, who were also partners in delivery from the outset. In the last year alone, Glasgow has received additional funds from the Scottish Government including £962,680 for the Glasgow Science Centre, £28m to Glasgow-based Innovation Centres, £500m towards the City Deal, £263,000 from the Active Places Fund, £1.8 million towards the restoration of a landmark building in Parkhead, £715,000 to help at-risk families through joint projects between the Council, Children 1st, the Scottish Refugee Council and other partners…the list goes on and on.

From the most basic fact of who actually determines allocations on, the mythical SNP bias against Glasgow is easily refuted, but Councillor Kerr and his colleagues will no doubt continue to repeat it in the hope that it becomes accepted political currency, regardless of its total lack of basis in truth.

It’s not the only example of this tactic he uses. Cllr Kerr’s claim of a £444m underspend by the Scottish government is one that’s been made repeatedly by Scottish Labour in recent weeks but, like Jim Murphy’s recent dodgy stats on hospital operations, it is demonstrable nonsense: the vast majority of that sum was never available to the Scottish Government to spend.

The actual underspend amounted to £145million, or 0.5% of the total Scottish budget, all of which has already been allocated for 2015/16. (The remaining amount comes under the heading of Annual Managed Expenditure and other technical non-cash budgets. The Scottish government has no discretion over how this money can be used.)

Councillor Kerr also takes a sideswipe at the SNP’s popular council tax freeze, which has helped to mitigate the effects of this regressive tax on low-income households – failing to mention that he himself was elected in 2012 on a manifesto which promised, as its number one priority, to continue to freeze the council tax. Was he misleading his constituents then, or now? (As an aside, the Scottish Government and COSLA have just this week convened a joint Commission to consider fairer alternatives to the council tax. Because of their big huff, Glasgow Labour won’t be part of it.)

The Big Lie approach might have worked for Glasgow Labour in the past but it’s delivering ever diminishing returns, as the city’s majority referendum Yes vote and current Westminster and Holyrood polling figures demonstrate. It’s a sign of Labour’s desperation and utter lack of an alternative vision that they seem unable to change their tactics. Their problem is, no one is listening any more. What people in Glasgow see is First Minister Nicola Sturgeon make a thoughtful argument against austerity economics and Ed Balls respond with a sneer. They remember Glasgow Labour spending the last two years telling them that a dose of the Westminster medicine is what’s good for you, that a UK Tory government is always better than choices being made in Scotland. They look at the poverty, health inequalities, neglected communities and serious social problems that still bedevil too many parts of our city – and remember that these have persisted under continuous Labour rule in Glasgow for 40 years, long before the SNP were ever in government. Glaswegians know where the blame lies – and they aren’t listening to the Big Lie any more.

Susan Aitken is the SNP’s Local Government Convener and leader of the SNP group on Glasgow City Council. She tweets at @SusaninLangside. 

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