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Central controls over council spending are too tight and should be relaxed, giving councils more flexibility in ser...
Central controls over council spending are too tight and should be relaxed, giving councils more flexibility in service delivery, COSLA president Norman Murray said.

'Councils should be in charge of their own spending and council tax decisions,' Mr Murray commented. 'We call on the minister to relax central controls and trust local government to deliver high quality services to agreed priorities.

'Flexibility is a must for councils - local government can and must be trusted to deliver agreed national priorities.'

Mr Murray said that the present system of control operated by the Scottish executive denied councils - and so their communities - the right and responsibilities to make their own decisions on the need for local expenditure.

'Local people who wish to vote for increased spend and service levels and are ready to pay local taxes are denied that choice,' he said.

Mr Murray's comments came on the eve of the Scottish parliament's debate on local government finance tomorrow (March 1) and as councils make decisions on their budget for 2000/01 and announce council tax levels on March 9.

Amongst the key issues highlighted in a special local government finance briefing for MSPs, COSLA stresses the need for local government to be fully involved from the very beginning of policy development in a genuine partnership with central government.

Local and central government have already agreed that priority spending next year should focus on education, social work, police and fire - but this means that the balance of government resources available for other important services is£3m less than this year, even though government provision for these services is some£223m less than councils' current budgets.

Such prioritisation and its consequences, says COSLA, places considerable pressure and difficult choices on councils in delivering other services.

The resultant ring-fencing of resources for priorities is also criticised in COSLA's briefing: 'It is the delivery of priorities which paramount and the emphasis should move from the need to control inputs to putting in place procedures to monitor outcomes.'

Guidelines controlling individual council spending levels are described as an unnecessary centralist measure which conflicts with the spirit of the government's own modernisation agenda and are fundamentally challenged by COSLA: 'An urgent examination is needed on the application of blanket controls to council spending levels. This needs to recognise the difficulties such arrangements cause local government and the imbalance between such controls and the revitalisation of local democracy. The aim should be to introduce flexibility to recognise local circumstances.'

COSLA also looks at non-domestic rates calling for consideration to be given to developing arrangements which would give some local flexibility on business rates, possibly linked to the stimulation of local economies and following full consultation with the business community.

And the need for a full review of local government finance as a matter of urgency is reiterated again by COSLA.

Other key areas examined in COSLA's briefing include:

Pay awards - councils are entering the seventh year of funding pay awards from efficiency savings bringing the total cost to councils to£700m

Proposals to make council taxpayers pay part of the cost of council tax benefit are opposed by COSLA

The democratic deficit caused by the fact that local taxation raises less than 20% of councils' funding

Capital resources, which should be increased to enable councils to improve the structure and fabric of schools, infrastructure and other community facilities.

'Central government has to allow us to plan in the longer term, to trust us to provide high quality services that our communities require within the best value regime and to be flexible. Flexibility is the key word for the future and a concept which I hope both local and central government can embrace,' Mr Murray concluded.

Meanwhile, COSLA has welcomed the move by the local government committee of the Scottish parliament on an independent review of local government finance.

'This is a review which we have been seeking for many years,' Mr Murray commented. 'Indeed, it is a key component in the briefing we have prepared for MSPs in advance on Wednesday's local government finance debate.

'There are many problems with the current system and we need to stand back and examine them carefully - I welcome the move from the committee to undertake the work themselves if the executive continues to refuse to do so.

'If there is to be real accountability between a council and its electorate as well as an effective relationship with central government, then we have to look at the amount of money councils raise by their own hand - currently less than 20% - to try to redress the democratic balance.'

Mr Murray added that as well as the review of local government finance, COSLA shared the committee's views on many of the issues by them.

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