*This article was first published in the Edinburgh Evening News newspaper on the 29th of January 2019*
You’ll hear two things about the Scottish Government’s budget this week. The SNP will tell you that local council budgets are going up once again in line with inflation;
Who’s telling the truth? Well here is the thing, they both are.
It is true to say that the council’s money is increasing but what gets lost in the tiny writing, in the footnote on the back page of SNP spin is that it includes all the money the Scottish Government gives the council for promises made in Parliament but delivered in your neighbourhood. Take childcare for example. The Scottish Government has bold and ambitious plans to rapidly expand the amount of free early learning and childcare it offers families. A worthy policy even if the detail squeezes wages and puts partnership nurseries at a real disadvantage. The cash for this is ring fenced and is then sent to councils to spend for that purpose and that purpose only.
The same goes for the SNP’s commitment to end bed blocking, a rather cruel term for the problem of patients who are ready to go home who are stuck in hospital because there isn’t a care plan in place for them to be safe. The SNP have come up for new cash for this, which is again, ring fenced.
These big sums added to the budget line makes the council pot look a lot healthier than it is. Take those new pots of cash for promises out and it’s clear – council budgets are falling and fast. Yet again, the council is going to have to do more with less. Actually, doing less and paying for it with buttons is probably a more apt description.
Trimming the fat off council spending was so 5 years ago – we’re now through flesh and bone, sucking out the marrow.
Last week I visited the Pilton Community Health Project to see what I could do to try and keep their doors open. Their work supports so many other community groups; it’s the critical Jenga block in the area. Push it out and the whole community will fall down with it. That’s not just an act of social vandalism, it’s also just stupid. The projects here, whether they are focused on the community’s mental health or supporting women affected by domestic violence, all save the public purse. They are the pinnacle of the preventative spend agenda. Keeping people out of hospital and out of the care system costs money, but just a fraction of what a hospital bed does, it’s so short-sighted.
I’m watching the fabric of society being unpicked across the city. Threads that can’t just simply be stitched back together. Too many good people moving on and too much institutional knowledge will be lost.
Last year, the Greens held the SNP Government together by backing their budget after the proposed cuts were halved. The Greens cynically explained it was thanks to them that extra money had been found. The political equivalent of me taking a tenner out your back pocket and then giving you a fiver with a wink. They may yet do it again this week but it still won’t be enough to save PCHP or other services and community hearts like it.
There is an alternative. Progressive taxation. These cuts are a political choice for the SNP in Holyrood. I’ve made this argument many times before and I’ll keep doing it, but there’s one new factor that sticks in the craw this week.
I tabled some questions in Parliament, which revealed that the Scottish Government is spending almost £100m preparing for a no deal Brexit. Something, which we Scots have so clearly rejected. That would be enough cash to stop all the cuts across the Lothian’s 4 councils. What an absolute travesty.