FIFE COUNCIL’S co-leader David Ross has suggested the Scottish Government’s “long-term failure” to resource local government services properly has hindered the local authority’s ability to respond to COVID-19 pressures.

Reflecting on the past two years and the challenges that lie ahead in 2022, Councillor Ross praised staff for working “magnificently” under restrictions to provide the extra support needed by individuals, communities, voluntary groups and other agencies like the NHS since the start of the pandemic.

But the Labour group leader admits that services have suffered for a number of reasons, such as staff absence due to coronavirus, the requirement for extra health protection measures to be put in place, and the additional demands for new work generated by the pandemic – such as distributing food packages to individuals, getting pandemic grants out to local businesses, dealing with pupil assessments following the cancellation of exams, and supporting testing centres.

Cllr Ross has welcomed the flexibility in place for councils to raise council tax if needed this year but remains concerned about the financial picture moving forward.

“Additional funding has come from the UK and Scottish governments to help deal with the pandemic but this masks the fact that once again we face a real-terms cut in our core funding from the Scottish Government,” he stressed.

“The Scottish Government provides 80-90 per cent of the funding to local government and since 2007, core funding has been cut by 25 per cent in real terms.

“This year, Fife has received roughly the same core grant as last year in cash terms with no account taken of inflation or the rising demand for services because of population growth and ageing.

“The Scottish Government claims it has given councils more than in previous years. But this extra funding is ring-fenced for new things the Scottish Government require us to do and can’t be used to support our core services.

“After 15 years of imposing zero or low levels of council tax increases on councils, the Scottish Government has acceded to COSLA’s long-standing request for councils to be able to decide the level of council tax for their area with no conditions.

“This is to be welcomed, but the timing before the local council elections in May is extremely cynical.

“And it allows the Scottish Government once again to shrug off their responsibility for cutting funding to local government and let councils take the blame for any necessary rises in council tax.”

Fife’s joint SNP/Labour administration has based its budget planning for 2022/23 on a three per cent increase in council tax, although the final decision on the level set will only be taken at the council budget meeting in February.

“We are very conscious of the impact of cost of living rises on households in Fife,” Cllr Ross continued.

“But the council faces the same inflation pressures as costs rise so anything much below a three per cent council tax increase would mean further cuts to services.

“This year, we hope to avoid any major cuts to services. There is a gap of £4 million between the council’s income, even with a three per cent council tax increase, and the cost of maintaining our current level of services, but we think we can plug this hole by using contingency funding.

“But all the projections of our funding for the following two years look bleak.

“This failure of the Scottish Government to fund councils properly is having a continuing impact on local services.

“Social care, for example, is in crisis. The Scottish Government’s own independent review estimated that social care for older people is under funded by at least £600m across Scotland.

“And even with extra COVID funding, it is proving difficult to recruit because of a long-term failure in workforce planning at a national level.

“It is years since the council, and now the Health and Social Care Partnership with the NHS, was able to provide proper care support to any but those facing the most critical needs.”

Ahead of May’s elections, Cllr Ross said the council’s focus has to be in supporting the recovery from the pandemic – a process he believes could take “two to three years”.

But he sees three major challenges in achieving that goal.

“Firstly, inflation is going to hit the council badly,” he went on.

“The costs of building materials is already increasing significantly, impacting on the council’s programme of building new homes, schools and repairing roads.

“Secondly, continuing reductions in funding from the Scottish Government are likely to mean further cuts to local services.

“And thirdly, there is a continuing move to take services away from local councils and centralise them under Scottish Government control.

“We have already seen police and fire services centralised. There has been growing Scottish Government interference in education and now there are proposals to take social care away from local control.

“I believe decisions on how to provide local services in Fife are best taken locally in Fife rather than remotely in Holyrood.”

The Scottish Government has defended its local government settlement for 2022/23, accusing critics of being “selective” with figures.

A spokesperson commented: “The Scottish Budget provides revenue funding amounting to over £11.8 billion – a cash increase of £855.4 million and a real-terms increase of £543.6 million.

“Despite the continued economic uncertainty facing us all as a result of the pandemic, we are treating councils fairly and providing a real-terms increase of over five per cent to local authority budgets for the coming year.

“Councils themselves asked for financial flexibilities this year such as the ability to take their own local decisions on raising council tax, which we were pleased to provide.”