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The most disastrous Budget ever?

Neil Munro looks at the hard choicesfacing councils as they draw upa list of cuts to next year's budgets. "Desperate", "disaster", "grim". These are descriptions that come easily to education authority leaders as they contemplate their spending plans - or lack of them - for the year beginning in April.

"Technically I am assistant director of education (services to schools) but I feel increasingly as if my job should be entitled assistant director (withdrawal of services from schools)," David Eastwood in Aberdeen says only half jocularly.

All eyes and ears in local government will be directed to the Chancellor's Budget next Tuesday and, more especially, the public expenditure statements which will follow it. But some of the details are already known, which is why the wolf-crying about "the most disastrous settlement ever" has more substance this time.

Smaller unitary councils cannot spread the pain as easily as the former regions, there are cuts to the "mismatch" support for councils which lost most heavily as a result of local government reform (taking more than Pounds 20 million from Glasgow alone), new legislation is adding an estimated Pounds 28 million to education costs (excluding school security), salary increases have to be met by "efficiency gains" for the fourth year running (forcing councils to find Pounds 75 million for a 2 per cent pay deal) and the relative protection for education in current budgets means greater pressure to bear their share next time.

The Government's rules on capping, which impose a ceiling on spending even if councils have spare money in their budgets, creates further strains. The survey figures indicating the extent of the cuts feared by councils are, in effect, the sums that must be removed to avoid breaching those levels.

Keir Bloomer, Clackmannan's director of education, comments: "If the capping limit is allowed to rise, in theory we could all make up for these losses just by putting up council tax but we could not do that if it is held as tightly as in recent years. The prospect we face is of council tax rises and poorer services."

Others point to councils' decreasing room for manoeuvre. Eleanor Currie, director in East Renfrewshire, says her department already runs a lean machine with only 27 central staff. Jim Wyness, education chairman in Aberdeen, says that educational administration accounts for only 6 per cent of the budget leaving front-line services to bear the brunt, which will once again involve headteachers in unpleasant decisions. Mr Bloomer says that, in turn, means non-statutory services sufferingly disproportionately There is little chance of even statutory school-based services escaping unscathed. The disappearance of posts seems inevitable but questions remain over how many of these cuts will translate into redundancies and how many will be compulsory (particularly as local authorities face increased costs for teachers' early retirement from next April). Mr Wyness in Aberdeen says: "For the first time in my local government career we are now looking at compulsory redundancies".

Public pressure also limits councils' freedom of action, as the furore over music and pre-school fees, reduced eligibility for school transport and school closures demonstrated this year.

Although closures will almost certainly be on councillors' agendas, their reluctance to pursue the issue may have as much to do with the relatively minor savings that can be achieved in the first year. Malcolm Green, Glasgow's education convener, who had to preside over the collapse of the city council's plans to close more than 20 schools this year, believes parents' ability to use legislation on opting out as a blocking device means a school can no longer be closed in under a year.

The final calculation in local authorities' considerations is that they may be dealing with a different government next year. "There is a temptation for many councillors to ignore capping limits and leave a new, hopefully Labour, Secretary of State to take a more generous line," one council figure suggested.

But councillors also know that generosity in the funding of public services is not on the Labour leadership's agenda.

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