Fife Council has agreed to freeze the council tax and accept the financial deal offered by the Scottish Government – because council leader David Ross says there was no alternative.
Cllr Ross said Fife would have lost out on £25m had it not accepted the terms of settlement set out by Finance Secretary John Swinney.
But he’s far from happy about it – and likened the strategy used by Mr Swinney as more like that of a Chicago gangster than what would be expected of Scotland’s deputy First Minister.
Scotland’s local authorities had been given until today (Tuesday, February 9) to accept the terms on offer from the Scottish Government, or lose out on funding for freezing the council tax, maintaining teacher/pupil ratios and supporting the integration of health and social care services.
Cllr Ross said: “With the greatest reluctance, I have today written to John Swinney saying that I see no alternative but to confirm as leader of Fife Council that we will comply with the terms he has set out in regard to the budget settlement because of the extreme punitive sanctions he would otherwise impose on the council.
“In December he announced an additional cut of £17m in Fife’s grant that we hadn’t expected. He has now made it clear that, should Fife not comply with the conditions he is imposing on us to receive our full grant, then we will face a penalty of another £25m.
“This is outrageous behaviour more like that of a Chicago gangster than what I would expect from the Deputy First Minister of Scotland.”
Fife Council’s Labour administration had been considering an increase in council tax of around seven per cent. It had expected to lose out on £4.6m for not agreeing to continue with the freeze, but after allowing for this, it would have raised over £7m to offset the impact of cuts to services.
Cllr Ross said that feedback he received during the budget consultation suggested two out of three people would have been prepared to pay more protect services.
”However, John Swinney’s latest letter made it clear that should we go ahead with this increase, we would lose not only the £4.6m relating to the council tax element of the settlement but a total of around £25m including funding for education and for health and social care that are totally unrelated to council tax,” he said. “This effectively removes raising the council tax as an option and condemns Fife to enduring a further £7m in cuts.
“This removes any local choice and I struggle to see how it is consistent with any kind of commitment to local democracy or to an anti-austerity agenda.
“I agree with COSLA president David O’Neill that this settlement undermines the relationship between local and central government. It has been badly handled, will prove very bad for the most vulnerable in our communities and result in thousands of job losses across the country.
“And it is all so unnecessary. John Swinney and the SNP voted down Scottish Labour’s proposal in the parliament to raise half a billion pounds to safeguard local services through a 1p rise in income tax, whilst protecting those on lower incomes.
“A rough calculation suggests Fife’s share would have been £25-30m to invest in education and other local services.
“This would have been an imaginative way of combatting the austerity economics of George Osborne and the Tories and is in stark contrast to John Swinney’s approach of piling additional cuts on to vital local services and threatening to penalise any council that dares to defy him.”
However, Fife’s SNP councillors have insisted the settlement from the Scottish Government is fair and Labour minority administration has been attempting to create a crisis where none exists.
Cllr David Alexander also criticised Labour decision to delay the budget setting meeting from this Thursday, February 11, to Thursday, February 25, to allow more time to consider the implications of the Scottish Government funding settlement.
He insisted there was no reason for delaying the meeting and the move was nothing more than a “political stunt”.
“Let’s put this into perspective,” said Cllr Alexander. “The combined budget for Fife Council and NHS Fife exceeds £1.8bn. Next year the combined budget will be that £1.8bn less around £10m – and that is due to Westminster ending opting out of national insurance contributions.
“The attempts to play politics by suggesting that councils are being ‘starved of funds’ are ridiculous.
“The letter from John Swinney that David Ross says is the catalyst for the change alters no numbers. It provides some clarity on some spending, and I’m sure the Labour party will congratulate him on demanding that all care staff should be given the Living Wage, and also the SNP determination to maintain the pupil/ teacher ratio.”