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Who's keeping an eye on the books?

THE Government's rhetoric and life in local authorities up and down Scotland do not coincide. As councillors meet to fix their budgets for 2000-2001, many are faced with the kind of cuts they thought had been consigned to the dustbin of history, following the cash injection by the Chancellor last year. Education as the largest charge on budgets is a target yet again, and the Educational Institute of Scotland is right (page three) to ask what is going on and how the Executive intends to respond.

One problem faced by councils such as Aberdeenshire is the mismatch between the budget for general expenditure and that tied up in projects such as the Excellence Fund. Ring-fencing of local overnment finance is relatively new. Councils used to be able to spend as they chose and face the verdict of ratepayers at the ballot box. Now central government seeks to impose its own agenda and to that end limits the freedom of councils.

No one questions the value of Excellence Fund projects for which councils have successfully bid. But what is the point of innovation if core parts of the education service are being undermined? Some councils are set to suffer badly. Others are much less stretched. The general lack of comprehension among MSPs about funding inhibits debate about the best way to fund local government and thus to find the best relationship with the centre.

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