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OPINION-CALLING FOR A BIGGER CAKE

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In Scotland it is the silly season for cajoling councils. Convoys of leaders and chief executives are paraded aroun...
In Scotland it is the silly season for cajoling councils. Convoys of leaders and chief executives are paraded around Scotland to listen to ministers.

Sometimes we are told how to compete for the capital stripped from this year's general borrowing consent.

Over a third of this consent has been top sliced and reassigned as funds for flooding, public transport, education or whatever else is deemed a priority.

Last week we took our circus to meet the education minister Jack McConnell on school buildings and the health minister Susan Deacon on a healthier Scotland. We were left in no doubt they want a step change in public services, but recognise this will require the help of councils and will need to involve communities.

We met in a brand-new private finance initiative school that was proudly displayed by the pupils and teachers who had helped with its design.

It had taken almost six years to complete, though the first three of these were spent fathoming out PFI procedures.

The local community were fulsome in their praise, but immediately turned on the state of the roads, pavements and community facilities. They are living in a world of spanking new education facilities cheek-by-jowl with clapped out community infrastructure.

Ministers can encourage more public/private partnerships and councils will do their bidding, but these schemes can never deal with the minor capital work needed to maintain standards across the board.

Ministers were told it is no longer possible to rob Peter to pay Paul - there is a need to increase the size of the cake or find new ways of financing the upkeep of the community infrastructure.

The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities has provided a thoughtful solution to this in its evidence to the Parliament's local government committee.

Councils are presently subject to double counting for capital works. This double counting is part of a Treasury noose which undermines the capacity of councils to invest in the deteriorating infrastructure.

COSLA argues for capital consent to be abolished and for financial prudence to be achieved through spending guidelines and council tax. CIPFA, across the UK, is developing safeguards which will allow local flexibility. If accepted, councils could escape the patch-and-mend era which, according to public opinion, increasingly threatens to be the undoing of this government.

Keith Yates

Chief executive, Stirling Council

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