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Schools need the feel-good factor

The Government apparently banked enough tax receipts last month to allow the Chancellor flexibility in cutting income tax and protecting education and other services. That is good news, although Kenneth Clarke's Budget next week will be judged by his promises to put prudence before election bribes.

The current health of the economy (at a temporary peak in the cycle?) will surprise local government leaders who are facing the severest cuts in living memory. As our survey shows (pages four and five), councils are looking at budgets which will demand savings on core services. Statutory school provision cannot escape, and non-statutory services will be ransacked yet again.

The problem is that earlier this year incoming councils found the cupboard bare but scrimped sufficiently to limit the scale of the damage, at least to basic services. Unlike their predecessors in the regions they did not cry wolf. The cuts this year were real. Next year they will be imposed on slimmer services.

The contrast with Treasury bullishness could not be more pointed. There is scope for limiting the damage to local government if ministers want to. But even in Scotland, where central government has traditionally been better disposed to councils, ministers like George Kynoch have wasted energy in a search for profligacy. They conveniently ignore the cost of local government reform which they instigated. They also reiterate that Scotland's councils are better funded than those south of the border.

Whatever public spending figures are announced next week, the Government will demonstrate that education and health have been protected and are adequately financed. But faced with the evidence of our survey and the representations of council leaders, Scottish Office ministers cannot reasonably maintain the fiction that leaking schools and mothballed hospital wards are the result of poor local management. Common sense should also make them pause in their relentless attacks on local autonomy.

Publicity on local budget cuts will come immediately after New Year. Revised levels of council tax, which will rise as high as capping allows, will be announced in early spring. The election is likely to be on May 1. Do the Conservatives really want voters to troop to the polling stations in disaffected mood? They set store by re-creating the feel-good factor. It is their only hope. Mr Clarke would do well to challenge Tory shibboleths and give some help to public services as well as private purses.

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