We’re robbing Peter so we can pay Paul £100m

19th August 2016 at 01:00
Councils won't get to decide how the money they raise from council tax is spent – how is that fair?

We’ve moved to a family home after living in a lovely but way-too-small-for-four-people box, seven storeys above ground. It’s liberating, but cold.

Because we have more space at our disposal, I can now work without imploring my husband to do whatever he is doing quietly. But while in our previous, well-insulated, modern flat, heating costs were piddling and knitwear unnecessary, I may be forced to invest in some jumpers and adopt more realistic expectations when it comes to energy bills if I’m to survive the winter in our 200-year-old house.

Another bill set to grow is the council tax. We have upsized just in time for the freeze to be lifted in April and the council tax reforms to be introduced. It is properties like the one we now own, in the higher council tax bands, that stand to be hit.

It’s hard to argue against these changes – it makes sense to put your hand in your pocket rather than see the decimation of local services continue – but what about paying more for better services in other areas?

The Scottish government plans to take the £100 million raised through the council tax reforms and hand it to headteachers, using free school meal rates to divvy up the cash.

Today, we report on the emergency summit held by local authorities’ body Cosla last week to discuss the government’s education delivery plan, published in June, which contains the proposal to give the extra £100 million to heads and more power directly to schools.

At the event, Cosla president David O’Neill warned that the plan for distributing the £100 million “smashes” the link between local taxation and local services. Basically, money raised in one council could end up being spent in another.

Maureen McKenna, Glasgow’s education director and president of education directors’ body ADES, reiterated her warning that some authorities might not get their fair share of the money if free school meals dictated the pot, given that eligible families in disadvantaged rural communities tended not to apply.

Schools, while vital, cannot close the attainment gap alone

And Unison Scottish secretary Mike Kirby, whose union represents many non-teaching staff in schools, said that the proposals posed “a threat to the existence of local government”.

Authorities agreed to the council tax freeze being introduced in 2008 because they were promised local taxation reform. Almost a decade later, the Scottish government has finally delivered – although critics argue its modest tweaks are a far cry from the original pledges to scrap it. But now councils won’t get to decide how the money they raise is spent.

Schools, while vital, cannot close the attainment gap alone; other services that councils deliver, from social services to leisure services, also have a role to play and need to be properly funded.

Hard as it is to argue against more money to help disadvantaged children succeed in school, the way the government is going about injecting this extra £100 million seems underhand and smacks of robbing Peter to pay Paul.

On the face of it, ring-fencing was scrapped in 2008; in reality the government is still dictating how councils spend their cash.

In the coming months, we should get a clearer picture of the government’s intentions and the future role of councils in education, with the school governance review scheduled for September.

In the meantime I’ve decided to turn the heating on and, as with council tax changes, end our self-enforced freeze. But when we pay our gas bill, at least we know who is benefiting.



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