East Lothian Council Annual Budget Meeting, Town House, Haddington, Tuesday February 12th, 2019
It’s a bit like a cross between an Oberammergau pageant and an accountants’ convention, but one that costs punters (in our local case) one quarter billion of out hard-earned cash. I refer to the annual ritual farce of the council budget meeting. In Scotland, it happens in 32 venues with more or less the same Punch & Judy formula. Vital as the meeting is in fulfilling democratic requirements, it is timed while everyone is busy working and structued to least appeal to (and therefore involvement of) the public. For audience engagement, it is easily beaten by the most amateur of Am Drams.
To be fair, the context is already obfuscated. An extensive piece of Newspeak, produced by the Scottish Government called “Scottish Budget 2019-2020: Equality and Fairer Scotland” sets this tome. A number of highly-paid Sir Humphrey-plus-minions clearly spent much time crafting this. But if someone gleans any hard data from its earnest verbiage, please let the rest of us know. It is ambitious (but woolly) posturing and no recipe for joined-up thinking with councils.
Before it gets to a council budget debate, first the UK budget must be set, which now happens in Autumn. This then triggers an unholy scramble in the Scottish Government to then decide its own allocations from the pot given. This gives councils (who get 75% of their money this way) little time to plan and approve a budget and set Council Tax (the other 25% of council income) in time for implementation om April 1st. It’s like geriatrics passing the ball down an attacking rugby line in slo-mo.
At the meeting itself, politics rears its ugly head. Even when councils are run by the same party as the Scottish Government, a pungent mix of political ambition and parochialism gets in the way. Councils resent going cap-in-hand for 3 in every 4 pounds spent. Government guards its central control jealously, so that it can enforce policies and claim achievements. There was once talk of “Parity of Esteem”, but that turned out to be spin. Had the Greens bot held the minority SNP government’s feet to the fire, councils would have seen a decrease this year. However, additional ‘burdens’ (i.e. required services) gave councils no option where to spend what extra they did get.
In Scotland’s fastest-growing council, East Lothian, the basic grant (no strings attached) actually fell 0.1%. A £5,476,000 rise in “Specific Grants” means the council has no choice where to spend them. By raising council tax 4.78%, an extra £3,625m 000 gives ELC a war chest of £248,116,000.
That sounds a lot. Until you consider almost half (£102,507,000) goes on schools, an obligatory service growing fast as families move into the county. Half of what’s left (£67,121,000) goes on Social Work—again obligatory—as retiree numbers swell. Twenty years ago, ELC Social Work spent just a fifth that. This leaves a quarter of the war chest to squabble over for the myriad other services. Granted, you can do a lot with over £70m. But such are the demands that pips squeak as soon as you try to stretch this to cover everything else.
The resulting debate was not quite two bald men arguing over a comb, but it came close. Instead of speeches of visionary ambition, rival parties spent their time disparaging each other. Tories cosied up to Labour and got some scraps in exchange for support. Both whaled on the SNP, as if local members were responsible for their Holyrood colleagues. SNP whaled on Tories, as if local members were responsible for their Westminster colleagues and tried to out-left Labour in concern for the vulnerable. Nobody commented on the Lab-Con alliance, which is quite common across Scotland these days.
Meanwhile, bizarre and desperate measures to stretch the money lurk in the budget detail. Despite growth swamping the county and developers circling like sharks, Planning had its budget cut by 13% (£231,000). A spurious “Transform Ways of Working” item is to magic £600,000 in savings from staff. An optimistic “Change in number of chargeable properties (i.e. more homes to tax) finds an extra £3,625,000. Scary is a net increase in debt of over £130,000,000. Most desperate of all, a cool £3,000,000 is being drained from reserves. This is to be paid back next year. Ah hae ma doors.
And yet (to keep the Tories onside) the Roads budget had an unheard-of 50% boost to £7,500,000 and Corporate Policy (not what you’d call a “front-line service”) jumped by 10%. Because the county is desperately short of affordable housing, most welcome was a significant effort to build council housing by investing rental income in new builds, raising rents steadily by 5% and pushing housing debt towards its legal maximum of 40%.
Despite this being THE public forum to defiine services across the county, virtually no-one outside council members and staff attended the 2-hour session. Can’t say I blame them. As theatre, it lacked substance, let alone appeal. The script was rubbish; the actors unrehearsed; indignation shown was transparently artificial and tribal politics dominated. It was so blatant any casual observer could have scripted the debate from previous meetings. simply warming up the leftover abuse.
Altogether unedifying, considering its importance. But, should there be any hard-core anoraks who want to see the full details of all this, the papers are available as PDF downloads here.