Brendan O’Hara , the MP for Argyll & Bute and Michael Russell, the constituency MSP have issued a joint open letter to Argyll & Bute Council Leader, Cllr Aileen Morton, in which they offer to help the Council with its current budget difficulties, but ask that the Council be straight with local communities about both the reasons for the problems and potential solutions.
The Letter is given below :
We are responding to your recent consultation about the Council budget. We are doing so publicly because before we can give practical help (which we want to do ) we need to dispel some myths which have arisen including the public contention by you and your administration partners that the problems Argyll & Bute Council faces under your leadership are solely as a result of Scottish Government cuts.
Whilst we are very sympathetic to the difficulties that all public bodies, including the Scottish Government, have faced as a result of a decade of austerity it is only fair to point out that this was imposed not by the Scottish Parliament, but by Westminster. In fact the Scottish Parliament and the SNP Scottish Government have consistently opposed austerity, even when it has been supported by Liberal Democrat and Tory MSPs at Holyrood.
Unfortunately the truth of this matter is that your own party, the Liberal Democrats , was deeply involved in foisting this damaging policy on Scotland. It did so by going into Government at Westminster with the Tories for five years and voting as part of that UK coalition government to approve swinging cuts to the Scottish budget. It then continued to do so by failing to support successive Scottish budgets from the current Scottish Government.
It is also worth pointing out that your party, the Liberal Democrats, remain in coalition with the Tories in Argyll & Bute to the present day despite their awful record regarding public finances and public services.
We would also want to add some additional detailed information for local people to consider.
Firstly, as we indicate above the Scottish Government has itself been subject to severe cuts in its funding from Westminster. Not including Health, (which must be excluded from all these calculations as the Scottish Government is committed to maintaining and indeed increasing that budget, and also applies all relevant consequentials to it ) the Scottish Government’s revenue budget is now 7.8% lower in real terms in 2019-20 compared to 2013-14.
But it is not correct to say, as you have recently done, that local government has been unfairly singled out for greater cuts these imposed on the Scottish Government because , over the same period, the Accounts Commission found that local government resource budgets had gone down by around 6% in real terms – almost two percent less than the cut imposed on Holyrood. And this year whilst the Scottish Government budget will further decline by 1.1% in real terms the local Government budget is actually going up , by 1.2%.
The truth is that overall the Scottish Government has maintained the overall funding for Local Government , as a share of the overall budget, at around 27%.
Secondly the Scottish Government has gone even further to try and help local government . Councils have , once again, the option of raising additional funds by increasing the Council Tax, something they have sought for a long while. If they used this power the overall effect across Scotland would be a real terms increase of money for Council services of 3.8%.
Thirdly the individual share of the total funding allocated to councils is not decided by the Scottish Government but by COSLA using a needs based formula. Argyll & Bute Council will receive a total of £221.9 million to fund their services in 2019-20 which, taken along side the Council tax increase they have decided to implement , will give the council an additional £14.2 million this year compared to last – a rise of 6.8%.
They will also receive their fair share of the extra funding that has already been announced during the current financial year including £141 million for teacher’s pay and and £60.8 million for increased teacher’s pension contributions.
Finally the Council could do a number of things to improve its own prospects. You and your administration could work hard to influence the COSLA formula which does not favour rural authorities with falling populations. The Scottish Government Cabinet Secretary for Finance has confirmed to us that he is always willing to consider suggestions from individual local authorities regarding local government funding but has stressed that proposals must come from COSLA itself.
You and your administration could be more imaginative in re-configuring services and in particular in streamlining central management of them and devolving delivery and local decision making closer to local people.
You and your administration could maximise your sources of income whilst remembering that local businesses are the lifeblood of recovery and therefore doing so in a way that encourages development not deters it. The recent massive hike in inspection charges for food products is an example of where the wrong decision is likely to damage the economy and the earning power of the area, rather than enhance it.
You and your administration could maximise your assets by working with communities. The Council has been slow to undertake any significant asset transfer which could lead to useful and productive partnerships . In fact on occasion you have devoted huge time , money and effort in preventing asset transfer to an enthusiastic and committed local community , the case of Castle Toward being an obvious example.
You and your administration could be more responsive to, and careful with, communities. The waste of money and time on things like the abortive Traffic Regulating Order for Mull and Iona indicates where you are not using resource wisely and storing up difficulties for the future. The refusal to institute an independent examination of what went so badly wrong in that particular case continues to involve the council in a needless, expensive dispute with the vast majority of residents of Mull and Iona. A similar waste of Council time and money can be seen in the unnecessary fight about street lighting in Port Charlotte on Islay.
You and your administration could ensure that any cuts do not fall on essential services which are needed for future success. The proposed reduction in educational support staff is an example of where a choice is being made that will not only be counter productive in terms of investing in our collective future and boosting local wellbeing, but will also lose the Council local sympathy and support which it needs to take forward its mission of helping and supporting the area.
And you and your administration could prepare to use the already agreed additional £50 million for the rural growth deal – coming jointly from the Scottish & UK Governments – to make a long term difference in your performance by instituting a step change in the local economy.
As your local constituency Parliamentarians we are completely committed to ensuring the maximum resource comes from central government to local government in Argyll & Bute and we will go on making that case alongside the case for more monies for the Scottish Government and all public services in Scotland .
We are always happy to work alongside , and in support of, the Council and we would be keen to meet to help you develop a detailed plan for the future of the area we are all elected to serve. But we must all be straight with local people and explain that responsibility for the difficulties that the Council is experiencing do not all lie at the door of the Scottish Government , and therefore nor do all the possible solutions.
In fact the Scottish Government is , and has been, working hard to assist Argyll & Bute and will go on doing so, as will we.
Brendan O’Hara MP
Argyll & Bute
Michael Russell MSP
Argyll & Bute
Michael Russell MSP for Argyll and Bute
michaelrussellmsp.scothttp://michaelrussellmsp.scot |@Feorlean | FB: Michael Russell–Argyll & Bute SNP
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Brendan O’Hara MP for Argyll & Bute
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