Directors play hunt the cash

15th December 2000 at 00:00
LOADS of money, enough for real growth, say ministers. Not entirely true, reply local authorities. The rosy picture painted by Angus MacKay, Finance and Local Government Minister, of local government spending for the next three years has flaked at the edges within days of the grant support announcement.

Education spending will, as in previous years, vary by authority. Some budgets will stand still, others will grow in real terms and some will continue to experience cuts. Staffing may take a hit.

Jim Anderson, director of education in Angus, described his own authority's position as "cautiously pessimistic" in contrast to Michael O'Neill, director of education in North Lanarkshire, who is "cautiously optimistic".

Aberdeenshire, which has complained bitterly over the past year about funding support, is likely to be facing cuts in each of the next three years running to millions of pounds. "It's not looking good," a spokesman said.

Glasgow is the most vociferous protester and has accused ministers and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities of reneging on a finance deal skewed towards councils with high deprivation factors. The city is threatening to withdraw its financial support to Cosla and spend the money on special educational needs, the budget area most under pressure in virtually all authorities.

Charlie Gordon, the city's leader, said the grant increase of 14.87 per cent over three years is well below the Scottish average of 16.1 per cent and took no account of deprivation. "We have been consigned to the bottom of the league."

Analysis reveals that growth for 2001-02 is only 5 per cent and not 6.8 per cent once Scottish Executive "level playing-field" support for the city's secondary rebuilding programme is stripped away.

A spokesman said the city had lost out every year since 1996 and that "there could be some difficulties for educaton". In his statement, Mr MacKay saw it differently. "In the past, the local government settlement announcement has sparked an annual debate about the relative winners and losers between councils. These discussions distracted from the real issue of how local authorities could make the most effective use of their resources. We have made local government finance arrangements simpler and fairer," he said.

The minister promised every council would receive a "real terms increase" in grant support in each of the next three years. The total sum will rise to pound;6.5 billion within three years.

Around council education departments, the picture is less rosy. Another authority, which declined to be named, may be facing cuts similar to those of three years ago. Government figures did not allow for opening new schools and rising pupil rolls.

All authorities are scrutinising the fine details but have yet to receive final information from the Executive. They do not know how much to allocate for teachers' pay following any post-McCrone settlement and are awaiting an announcement on further targeted Excellence Fund cash.

While ministers point to real increases in spending, councils reply that they have additional burdens and inflation to cope with.

Edinburgh, therefore, is likely to have a standstill budget at best, a view shared in Borders by John Christie, director of education. "Overall, the picture looks very tight. We are not talking about cuts and certainly not about growth," Mr Christie said.

In contrast, East Lothian is "optimistic", as is Renfrewshire, although Shelagh Rae, the director, says councils with significant deprivation are doing less well.

Michael O'Neill in North Lanarkshire, the most upbeat director, said: "There is the potential in the first year for no significant cuts and some growth." It was the best settlement for five years.

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