The Herald

Council budget plans a bureaucrat­ic mess, says expert

- DOUGLAS FRASER

COUNCILS face their most serious budget problems since they were set up, having lost the autonomy to raise tax and with a complex new system of regulation­s, according to one of Scotland’s leading public finance experts.

ProfessorA­rthur Midwinter has warned of blurred lines of responsibi­lity under the new funding system for public services, which are being drawn up between ministers and councils.

With less than a month before the new financial year begins, these agreements between councils and government are far from ready, and a deadline of late June is now aimed for.

By that time, local authoritie­s will have to select from a “menu of indicators” which ones they want to use to hit broad-ranging national targets. According to a draft document on the outcome agreements expected in return for the money to pay for a council tax freeze, there are currently 52 such indicators and more may be added.

It says the two sides of government are supposed to reach agreements on “mutual accountabi­lity”, though there is little detail on how that will be done.

The detail will be further discussed tomorrow, when the Convention of Scottish Local Authoritie­s (Cosla) meets in St Andrews at its three-day annual conference.

The Herald yesterday highlighte­d that voluntary and charity groups are uncertain whether the tight financial settlement will mean their grants will be cut.

An analysis of the concordat agreed between ministers and Cosla leadership, written by Professor Midwinter, warns that the idea of joint accountabi­lity “is hard to take seriously”.

He was adviser to Holyrood’s Finance Committee and is now adviser to Labour leader Wendy Alexander. In a paper he has written for the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountanc­y, he stresses he is writing as an independen­t academic.

“Joint accountabi­lity cannot work in any practical way with such constraint­s,” he writes. “The concordat provides a bureaucrat­ic mess which lacks clear audit trails and creates a new tier of micro-management.”

Professor Midwinter says the low growth in budgets, set against high expectatio­ns of what can be delivered, “creates the most serious set of budgetary problems for local government since the fiscal crisis of the mid-1990s”. He goes on to warn that the freezing of council tax, which is expected to be completed tomorrow at a meeting of Clackmanna­nshire Council, is part of “an unnecessar­y distractio­n from the core funding problems local government now faces, with the loss of fiscal autonomy, to deal with unforeseen circumstan­ces”.

Labour and the SNP clashed yesterday over the funding of public services. Commenting on a survey showing that nearly three-quarters of health charities have no funding beyond this month, Ms Alexander said: “Labour warned that the sums did not add up.”

 ??  ?? PROFESSOR MIDWINTER: Is critical of new funding system.
PROFESSOR MIDWINTER: Is critical of new funding system.

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