WHEN the National asked me to write something about Aberdeen councillor Douglas Lumsden, the Tory Co-Leader of the City Council, attempting to bypass the Scottish Government to make a funding deal with the UK Government I had to go and check that the story was actually real, it seemed so preposterous.
It was real. And it is preposterous.
I had initially thought perhaps he was referring to some kind of expanded City Deal. But it appears that he is attempting to persuade the UK Government to directly fund Council services like education, social care, housing, cleansing and recycling in Aberdeen, circumventing the Scottish Government and Cosla.
All local government services are devolved. Relevant legislation, guidance and targets are all devolved. I can see no rational basis to seek funding from Westminster to deliver devolved services. It simply doesn’t make any kind of sense.
Councillor Lumsden says he is doing this because he doesn’t think Aberdeen gets its fair share of funding. But, frankly, every councillor in every authority would probably say this. We all want the best for our area.
As a Glasgow councillor I make no bones about saying that I don’t think Glasgow is fairly funded. Our city has benefited from Scottish Government initiatives in areas such anti-poverty funding and funding to raise attainment. But the overall local government funding formula does not reflect Glasgow’s higher levels of need in the way that it should.
Glasgow’s previous Labour administration left Cosla because they were unhappy about the funding formula. I sympathised but it achieved absolutely nothing. When you walk out of an organisation you lose any ability to influence decisions.
I cannot imagine what Councillor Lumsden thinks could be achieved by Aberdeen City Council being directly funded by the UK Government rather than by the Scottish Government. It would not result in increased funding and would also create an additional cost for the Treasury. A cost which would surely have to be picked up by Aberdeen City Council itself.
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Sustainable reform of local government funding is a serious issue and one I hope will be addressed in the next session of parliament. But this is not a serious contribution to the discussion. It is a political gimmick.
It is interesting that Aberdeen Tories have chosen this battleground. Because, let’s be clear, this is not simply an attack on the Scottish Government. It is an attack on devolution itself.
I mentioned earlier that the entirety of local government is devolved – and that was entirely intentional. The architects of devolution explicitly wanted local government to be devolved. It was an integral part of the argument for creating a Scottish Parliament, to enable Scotland to do things differently in devolved areas. So it’s ludicrous for Councillor Lumsden to argue that bypassing the Scottish Parliament is not an attack on devolution. It unquestionably is.
Whether this extraordinary manoeuvre is strategic or simply inept is hard to say. But personally I suspect Councillor Lumsden is attempting to whip up a bit of anti-Central belt feeling in his bid to replace Housing Minister Kevin Stewart as MSP for Aberdeen Central. He will be hoping that voters overlook not only the fact that he is trying to undermine the parliament he wants to be elected to but also the Tories’ truly woeful record on supporting local government where they actually have power.
In England, the central government contribution to local services now accounts for just 31 per cent of spending. The rest is funded by council tax (52 per cent) and retained business rates (17 per cent). There’s an entirely necessary discussion to be had about the correct balance between central and local funding for councils but the reduction in central government grants to councils in England has been devastating.
It’s not possible to make direct comparisons between English and Scottish councils, not only because funding arrangements are different but because major services like Education have been stripped from local authorities down south. But nonetheless we can say that if Aberdeen City Council was funded in the way that the Tories fund councils in England the people of Aberdeen would lose out. So it’s a strange thing to ask for.
All in all, I don’t think Kevin Stewart has too much to worry about in the forthcoming election. In my experience, Aberdonians are far too shrewd to fall for the kind of political nonsense Councillor Lumsden is indulging in. But it is to be hoped that they will seize the chance to remove the Tories from the administration of Aberdeen City Council at the earliest opportunity. The Granite City really does deserve better.