Page last updated at 13:58 GMT, Wednesday, 14 April 2010 14:58 UK

Passing the buck over council cuts

By Jamie McIvor
BBC Scotland's local government correspondent

Councils across Scotland are under fire over unpopular cuts and politicians across the spectrum are trying to turn it into an election issue - but who's really to blame? Westminster, Holyrood or the councils themselves?

bin collectors
Councils deliver a number of basic services, including bin collections

From school closures to cuts in services and higher charges for using them, councils across Scotland have recently completed one of the most difficult budget rounds in recent memory - and the signs are the next few spending rounds will prove even more testing.

There's something about the nature of political campaigning which can blur the lines between local, Scottish and UK issues especially when a canvasser is confronted by an irate voter who's unhappy about a cut to a popular local service.

But if your council is proposing to close your child's school or cut a service you value, who should you actually hold to account?

The answer is not simple. There's a complex chain which stretches all the way from Downing Street to your street - or at least the street around the corner where the pothole still hasn't been repaired.

The Scottish government gives councils most of their money but - at least for the moment - the money Holyrood gets comes from the block grant from Westminster.

Accountability and 'blame' is not a black and white issue - Westminster, Holyrood and your own council all share some of the responsibility

Labour claims the Scottish government's budget is at a record high - but the Scottish government says wider cuts at Westminster mean it's getting less than it had anticipated.

What both say is true - the amount the Scottish government gets from Westminster is still determined by a formula established more than 30 years ago which links rises in the block grant to wider public spending at Westminster.

Total UK Government expenditure continues to rise - when politicians talk of cuts in government spending, they mean cuts to individual projects or cuts after inflation is taken into account.

But many argue the funding formula is now outdated. The Calman Commission, set up to review devolution, advocated a degree of fiscal autonomy for Holyrood while, of course, the SNP believes in complete financial independence for Scotland.

So, yes, Westminster can be held to account for the amount the Scottish government has to spend - but not how the money is spent.

Scottish budget
Economic development
Arts/sports funding
Local government
Public transport/roads

Wider economy including tax
Foreign affairs
EU negotiations
Abortion and embryology
Rail/aviation/shipping regulation

It's up to Holyrood to decide how to divide the cake between various competing priorities.

The SNP argues its giving councils a fair share although it also claims it would like to give them even more - ideally through fiscal autonomy but, failing that, through increases in the block grant.

Opponents dispute this and say the SNP could give councils even more already if it didn't spend money on things like the proposed independence referendum or cutting prescription charges for the well off.

Meanwhile, councils and the Scottish government continue to honour a three year deal to freeze the council tax. Councils have been given more money each year though opponents claim this amount has not been enough.

So, yes, Holyrood can also be held to account for the amount councils have to spend - but, in many cases, not for how the money is spent.

The deal to freeze the council tax also gave councils more flexibility over how they could spend their money. Less of the money they received from Holyrood was "ring-fenced" for specific projects.

Abstract concept

Councils had to set their budgets to achieve a difficult balance between statutory requirements, like education, and things which they are not actually obliged to do but may well want to.

To do this some have cut services or introduced or increased charges for particular schemes.

Inevitably these decisions often arouse strong feelings. They are cuts or charges which people see the effect of in their own lives - not as an abstract concept.

So, yes, councils are accountable for how they spend their money and how they provide services - but, while the council tax is frozen, they are not directly accountable for the size of their budget.

Whoever forms the next Westminster government, cuts in public spending lie ahead. And as long as Holyrood lives off a grant, these cuts will automatically have a knock on effect on the amount the Scottish government has.

Cuts in local services are always controversial but accountability and "blame" is not a black and white issue. Westminster, Holyrood and your own council all share some of the responsibility.

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