Councils continue to perform well for communities despite reduced spending

Scotland’s local authorities continue to perform well for their communities in terms of service delivery despite a sharp reduction in their finances, according to a new report.

Data contained in the Local Government Benchmarking Framework published by the Improvement Service, has found that councils have achieved substantial improvements in efficiency, innovation and productivity while service output and outcomes have been largely maintained and improved.

Measures of educational outcome show positive progress in closing the education attainment gap overall but particularly for children from the most deprived areas.

Another real positive to emerge from the data is the increased usage of libraries, museums and leisure facilities coupled with reduced costs.

The LGBF reports on how much councils spend on particular services; service performance and how satisfied people are with the major services provided by councils.

Across the seven-year period for which data is presented, total current funding for Scottish councils has reduced by 7.6% in real terms from £10.5 billion to £9.7bn.

Education spending has been relatively protected, and child protection and social care spending have grown substantially.

As these account for over 70% of the benchmarked expenditure within the LGBF, other services have taken much more substantial reductions. Expenditure on roads has fallen by 20% in real terms, on planning by 33% and on culture and leisure services by 17%.

The main findings from the report show that reduction in spend has been variable across service areas:

  • education has been relatively protected (-4%),
  • child protection has grown (+19%),
  • adult social care has grown (+6%)
  • waste disposal spend has grown (+4.3%) linked to the transition from landfill to recycling.

Other areas have had substantial cuts to spending:

  • Leisure and culture services (-17%),
  • Parks and open spaces (-22%),
  • Roads maintenance (-20%)
  • Corporate Support Services (-14%).

While welcoming the positive performance, local authority body COSLA said it should be recognised that use of reserves was a key contributor to the trend.

It will be harder to reproduce the efficiency and productivity gains of the last five years again, particularly with the current financial outlook and the relaxation of the pay strategy proposed by the Scottish Government, it added.

Commenting on the report, COSLA President Councillor Alison Evison, who also chairs the Improvement Service Board, said: “The report shows that the cuts to local government have really started to bite, particularly in the non-statutory services.

“It also illustrates clearly that despite this Scotland’s councils continue to deliver high quality services to their communities.

“It is particularly pleasing that the data released today clearly demonstrates that councils and schools are closing the attainment gap.

“There are however still major inequalities in attainment between the most deprived pupils and others. Continuing reform and improvement is essential, but it is critical to ensure that continued reform does not disrupt the stable and consistent improvement trend already there, as schools, councils and regional improvement collaboratives adjust to new roles and relationships.

“What councils are continuing to achieve for communities is impressive in spite of the financial challenges we face.

“Indeed I think that today’s report shows fantastic results for culture and leisure services.  The increased usage of libraries, museums and leisure facilities coupled with reduced costs is a great story of transformation and how widely valued council services are across Scotland.

“Local government cannot continue to be the poor relation of the public sector and the fact that roads spending is down 20% will not have gone unnoticed.

“Spending on care for older people has grown in real terms but not at the level necessary to keep up with demographic change. The same applies to child protection.”