Budget settlement fails to beguile Argyll as primaries face axe
Argyll and Bute, the local authority pushing ahead with controversial plans to close 25 rural schools to help plug a budget black hole worth millions, has been left reeling after coming off worst in the Scottish Government's financial settlement for councils.
Finance Secretary John Swinney promised councils a 2.6 per cent cut in their funding, as opposed to 6.4 per cent, if they signed up to certain conditions, including the council tax freeze, maintaining progress on smaller class sizes, and providing jobs for all probationer teachers.
Last week, however, it emerged that the 2.6 per cent cut was the average saving councils would have to find, with actual cuts varying widely from 4.9 per cent in Argyll and Bute to 0.3 per cent in West Lothian.
The leader of Glasgow City Council, Gordon Matheson, accused the Government of adding pound;13.5 million to the city's budget cuts. It had budgeted for a cut of 2.6 per cent but had been asked to find 3.6 per cent. This would lead to "brutal and unpalatable decisions", he warned.
He added: "If we had received the same cut as SNP-controlled West Lothian we would be pound;46 million better off. How can John Swinney stand there and say that's fair? It's a disgrace."
Argyll and Bute Council also expressed its dismay.
Council leader Dick Walsh said the situation looked so bad for Argyll and Bute that the authority believed the Scottish Government must have made a mistake in its calculations.
He said: "We have asked, through Cosla, for clarification and confirmation of our settlement figure."
A spokesman for the Scottish Government said: "We have been clear that if councils accept the package, their resource funding for next year will reduce by an average of 2.6 per cent - a greater degree of protection than other parts of the Scottish budget, and superior to that for local government in England."
Argyll and Bute is in the midst of pushing ahead with plans to close a third of its primaries - a move it estimates will save pound;6 million over the next three years, but less than half of the total savings it needs to find over the period.
It is facing fierce opposition to the closures, however, and earlier this week was accused of using "a dodgy dossier" which, critics allege, misrepresented and selectively quoted two academic studies to support its proposals. One of the studies was a three-year-old analysis of migration patterns in the Outer Hebrides. The other was by Hall Aitken, whose research director, Denis Donoghue, said his report had been used in a "wholly unjustified" manner.
Campaigners from the Argyll Rural Schools Network are now arguing the school closure proposals should be dumped, accusing the council of misleading councillors and the public.
The council's executive director of community services, Cleland Sneddon, defended its position, saying: "There is absolutely no attempt to mislead people.
"We're committed to providing a quality education service within the constraints of a reducing budget and we have been open about our consultation from the start. The studies referred to quote a wide range of criteria to define a thriving and sustainable rural community. The presence of a primary school is just one aspect and is no more or less important than jobs and housing."