COUNCIL leaders have warned SNP ministers that “a crisis response mode will be required for several years to come” ahead of crunch budget negotiations with emergency pandemic funding expected to be wound down.
The plea comes after SNP activists backed calls for councils to be given more freedom over Scottish Government funding after the party’s conference delegates called for authorities to be allowed “local flexibilities” amid concern over budgets being ring-fenced.
Cosla, the organisation representing Scottish councils, has urged SNP ministers to recognise “that the crisis is far from over” as an uplift in local authority funding to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic is expected to be scaled back in next year’s budget.
Ahead of an appearance in front of Holyrood’s Finance and Public Administration Committee today, Cosla’s resources spokesperson, Gail Macgregor, has urged ministers to acknowledge next year’s budget “will need to fully recognise the importance of local government services in supporting communities to recover from the Covid crisis and to tackle poverty and inequality”.
She added: “Crucially there will need to be a strong focus on community and economic recovery for which local government will need to be resources to play its part.”
Ms Macgregor, who produced her submission to MSPs in collaboration with the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (Solace), issued a warning that councils will bear the brunt of the impact of the £20 Universal Credit uplift and the furlough scheme being withdrawn by the UK Government.
She said: “There needs to be a recognition that the crisis is far from over and, for many people, as support like furlough comes to an end and Universal Credit is limited to pre-Covid levels, inequality and lack of opportunity will increase.
“There is a very real risk that the sorts of financial intervention seen during the pandemic to support low-income households will not be replicated, whilst the crisis will be ongoing for many people.”
Ms Macgregor added: “Cosla believes that this is not the time to switch from crisis management, as a crisis response mode will be required for several years to come. For instance, additional funding for the Scottish Welfare Fund during 2020-21 is not set to continue for 2021-22 and beyond, at a time when the fund is likely to come under significant pressure from those needing support during the recovery phase.
“At the same time, local government needs to invest in preventative activities if we are to address matters such as inequalities over the longer term.”
At the SNP conference yesterday, a motion by leader of Edinburgh City Council, Adam McVey, calling for “full and transparent” council funding, was overwhelmingly backed by party delegates.
The prominent SNP councillor criticised the current funding model for councils, warning it “relies too heavily” on yearly budgets from the Scottish Government.
Mr McVey’s motion acknowledged “new government initiatives” that SNP ministers pass over to councils to roll out such as the expansion of free childcare, warning that “for these policies to be fully funded, this must be in addition to the core budget of Scottish councils”, adding “there is still a residual issue with local government finance”.
Mr McVey pointed to the SNP’s stalled plans for a tourist tax.
He said: “The question is, should it take so much effort and so many years to deliver policies like this?
“My conclusion, conference, is that no, we should build a more permissive environment so that councils can take decisions for their economies and for their circumstances that’s right for them.”
Finance and Economy Secretary Kate Forbes told MSPs she met Ms Macgregor last week “to discuss the forthcoming resource spending review”.
She added: “I will continue to meet Cosla and local authorities regularly to cover a range of topics including funding up to and beyond the publication of the Scottish Government’s budget.”