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Council / Local government is ‘failing’, SIC chief executive says

THE CHIEF executive of Shetland Islands Council (SIC) said she believes that local government across the country is “failing”.

Maggie Sandison also said there continues to be a gap between funding and what local authorities being asked to do.

She made the remarks before councillors approved the SIC’s budget for 2024/25, which drew concern from many elected members over a planned £23 million unsustainable draw from reserves.

Sandison was asked by SIC leader Emma Macdonald if she felt there was any recognition from government about the important role local government plays, and whether there is a risk some councils in Scotland are going to begin to fail.

SIC chief executive Maggie Sandison. Photo: Shetland News

Macdonald also asked that given there is reduced funding and increased demand, whether Sandison felt local government in its current format is sustainable.

The chief executive replied that in her view failure in local government was “already happening”.

She referenced how other councils are making difficult decisions about cutting services, including not investing in social work and social care.

Sandison added that she is actively engaged in conversations with Food Standards Agency Scotland and an independent commission on animal welfare, who are recognising that local authorities are “underinvested for statutory services”.

She told councillors that there is an increasing amount of statutory work being placed on staff, without extra resources being provided.

“You will have noticed there has been no stop in new bits of legislation which require our staff, who are already fully occupied, to continue to do new pieces of work,” Sandison said.

For example she said there are “quite significant” additional licensing requirements particularly around animal health, and referenced the recent legislation on XL bully dogs.

“I think the fundamental failure of local government is happening at the moment,” Sandison said. “What is the point of having legislation that you cannot enforce?”

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“What worries me is our statutory services that are being exposed to this. The government are not meeting the full cost of ring-fenced services and therefore choices are having to be made about cutting other statutory services.”

She also said the council is not being funded for the demographic changes being experienced locally, such as increased demand for adult services.

Sandison continued: “I think the whole structure and financial arrangements in local government at the moment are setting us up to fail.”

She said the challenge for local councillors regarding meeting the 2024/25 funding gap “has been created by the failure to address the rising costs, the change in demand, the changing need arising from Covid and from the cost of living crisis, [and] failure to fund staff pay awards”.

“You have a really big challenge,” Sandison told elected members. “It’s not one of your making, I would say.”

The exchange later drew a response from Lerwick councillor John Fraser, who said he appreciated the question and also the answer.

But he said it was probably the most “politically loaded” questions put directly to a council officer in his experience and asked if there had been a shift in how SIC staff can be questioned in meetings.

Sandison, however, said she felt it was not particularly political given that it did not reference policy or parties and was a wider question on local government.

She said it would be the same conversation she would have in a professional group of other local authority chief executives.

Sandison also said it was “most challenging environment for setting a budget that this council probably has ever had”.

She felt it was right that the community understands that “so much of what you [councillors] are dealing with is outside of your control”.

When the Scottish budget for 2024/25 was passed in parliament earlier this year, the government said it was pledging more than £14 billion for local authorities – “the highest settlement yet delivered for local government”.

Deputy first minister Shona Robison said the 2024/25 Scottish budget “stays true to our progressive values: investing in services, growing our economy, protecting vulnerable people and tackling the climate emergency”.

“We have taken decisions which prioritise funding in the areas that have the greatest impact on the quality of life for the people of Scotland – despite the challenges caused in large part by the UK Government’s failure to invest in public services and infrastructure,” she added.

“Our block grant funding from the UK Government has fallen in real terms since 2022-23. Our capital spending power is due to contract by almost 10 per cent in real terms over five years – that’s around £1.6 billion in total, equivalent to the cost of building a large hospital.”

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