Ministers are making local funding a lottery;Opinion

23rd February 1996 at 00:00
The Government has made available enough money for local authorities to provide services without a massive hike in council tax. So says George Kynoch, the local government minister. He should offer his services to Glasgow councillors who are wrestling with the consequence of a financial settlement that forces the leadership to propose a 36 per cent rise in council tax and reductions in services, including the closure of up to 20 schools. The Conservative opposition on the council would like Mr Kynoch to wave his magic wand because they cannot see how his sums add up.

Glasgow appears to face the most serious problems, but most of the new councils are preparing for the rockiest of starts. A combination of circumstances conspires against them. They have to tackle the consequences of disaggregration (jargon for the break-up of the regions) at the same time as the most constraining financial settlement for 20 years.

South of the border there is a growing belief that last year, with its series of parent and teacher demonstrations, marked a nadir in terms of educational cuts. This year Gillian Shephard's success at the Department for Education and Employment in squeezing a little extra from the Treasury, even if not all of her pound;800 million should be called new money, will avoid another round of middle-class revolts and embarrassment to the Conservatives. In Scotland, which did not suffer so acutely last year, the outlook is less reassuring.

If the new councils could be confident that they faced only a year of excessive stringency, they might be able to protect core services. But the prospect is of problems for at least the following two years. Even a general election would not rescue them since an incoming Labour Government would be anxious not to loosen Treasury strings.

Therefore intended savings, such as by school closures, will be looked for immediately. There is no honeymoon for the councils, and so ministers will be unable to point to popular recognition of a successful reform. Instead, even if some councils have managed by March 5 to set budgets marginally less gruesome than they have been predicting, there will be resentment from taxpayers and service users.

The political fallout is more likely to be on the Government than on the councils, although this week's demonstration at Glasgow City Chambers suggests that councillors can be forced on the defensive. If parents turn to opting-out ballots to postpone school closures, there will be divided communities and no prospect achieving quick savings.

The arbitrariness of the consequences of local government change will produce no dividend for Government either. Some councils have the financial scope to be innovative - with schools sport in East Lothian (see page one) and pre-fives education in East Renfrewshire (page five). But local government should not be a lottery with prizes for a few in favoured areas.

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