Comhairle nan Eilean Siar has proposed a ‘radical’ new plan to limit the impact of budget cuts on council services, and has hailed its new approach not just an attempt to save money, but as a drive to empower and enable local communities. But the move has been criticised by the Comhairle’s staff union, who are calling on the Comhairle and the Scottish Government to explain why ‘one of the most fragile local economies in the country is being forced to endure the highest level of budget cuts’.
DENIED EUPHEMISM FOR CUTS
Speaking after Comhairle meetings this week at which the new ‘Service Redesign’ proposals were first debated by councillors, Comhairle Leader, Councillor Roddie Mackay, denied claims that the Service Redesign was simply a euphemism for cuts.
He said: “There will be reductions in services. We have seen a 17 percent reduction in our budgets since 2010 – the highest of any local authority in Scotland – and we have lost over 230 jobs in our communities.
“We are trying to minimise the impact of reduced resources, and we are trying to minimise the impact of these cuts on our communities. That’s all we are trying to do. We are not trying to kid anybody on, there are going to be difficult choices to be made.”
“The communities have an understanding of these challenges themselves and we feel if we work with them there is a chance that we can come out with wiser solutions – and maybe with solutions that ensure that we can maintain as high a level of service as possible, that’s all.”
A statement released by the Comhairle earlier in the week said that the Service Redesign process was being undertaken to take into account the ‘enduring climate of financial austerity which threatens services’, and the new plans have been earmarked to save the Comhairle nearly £10m, with the warning that even greater savings might be necessary.
CUTS ARE INTOLERABLE AND UNACCEPTABLE
But Flora Somerville, UNISON Area Organiser, said cuts of this magnitude were intolerable, unacceptable and will impact greatly on all, and in particular, the most vulnerable in the community.
She added: “To our members and the wider community ‘service redesign’ is simply another term for cuts to local services. The cuts which have gone before have seen council services slashed and immense pressure put on the Comhairle’s employees, who are trying to do more with less.”
At a recent Comhairle seminar, officers and members discussed the process of community engagement and empowerment aimed at: ‘identifying those issues that are important to local communities, in addition to investigating ways that could reduce the demand for some services; identify other services that could be more efficiently provided by communities, and agree which services could be cut.’
The Comhairle’s statement detailed that it ‘aims to be aspirational and optimistic about the future’ and that it remains committed to the economic, social and community regeneration of rural areas.
To achieve this, the Comhairle ‘will be considering the maximum possible transfer of services and staff to rural area hubs, and using digital technology to support more of its business functions’. This, in turn, it claims, ‘should provide a stimulus to a growth in rural housing’.
DELIVER SERVICES IN AN HOLISTIC WAY
Cllr MacKay added: “Because the money is reducing the simplest thing for us to do would be to cut services across the board. But we have tasked the corporate management group to come up with different ways of saving the money, different ways of delivering the services, taking a more rounded approach so that instead of departments acting solo or in silos, we look at how they can work together to try and deliver services in an holistic way.
“We want to go out to communities and say, listen, you as communities know your own needs, in many cases better than we do. So if a community can deliver a service for less than we usually do then they might also get a better service than we can deliver, and we’ve saved a bit of money and the service hasn’t diminished.”
ISLANDS RECEIVE ABOVE THE STANDARD FORMULA SHARE
Defending the Government’s record on financing the Comhairle, a Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Despite continued UK Government real terms cuts to Scotland’s resource budget, we have treated local government very fairly.
“In 2018-19, councils will receive funding through the local government finance settlement of £10.7 billion. This will provide a real terms boost in both revenue and capital funding for public services.
“Each local authority, including Eilean Siar, receives its fair share of this total funding and decides how it manages its day to day business and best allocate its resources.
“The funding formula agreed with COSLA takes into account that it costs more to provide services to island communities and Eilean Siar is receiving £15.8 million this year over and above their standard formula share.”
DECADE OF TORY AUSTERITY
Western Isles MSP, Alasdair Allan, added: “A decade of Tory austerity, and cuts by the UK Government to the money which the Scottish Government has available to it, has squeezed all public spending.
“Conservative governments continue to reduce resources for public expenditure in Scotland, but the Scottish Government has sought to be fair about maintaining the share of this that goes to local councils.
“Quite rightly, given our geography, our council receives the highest per-capita funding settlement of all the local authorities in Scotland, but none of those facts take away from the pressures which both the Comhairle and the Scottish Government face.”
But Unison’s statement concluded: “The islands are struggling already from the effects of an ageing population and outward migration. Further cuts to council spending locally will only exacerbate these challenges.
“Local government services are the bedrock of our communities, providing services to all from the cradle to the grave – and every pound spent by local government supports local businesses.
“The council services currently being ‘redesigned’ – Education, Health & Social Care, Transport, Environmental Services, and Economic Development – contribute positively to our day-to–day lives and we all rely heavily on the Comhairle to deliver these.”