Austerity? How the SNP holds back Westminster funding

Austerity? How the SNP holds back Westminster funding

by Linda Holt
article from Friday 21, June, 2019

AS THE CHANCES of a no-deal Brexit on October 31st grow inexorably, COSLA, the Council of Scottish Local Authorities, has just announced that the Scottish Government is awarding £1.6 million to councils for “resilience work” in relation to Brexit. 

This follows a bid put by COSLA’s president Alison Evison to the Scottish Government for the same amount months ago. This in turn was in response to a growing clamour from Scottish councils for a share of the money awarded to the Scottish Government by the UK Government – £92 million to date. The sum came via Barnett consequentials, having been generated by, and awarded for, planning and other arrangements in the event of a no-deal Brexit in the rest of the UK.

There was a bit of a stooshie in February when it was revealed that of the £37 million awarded for Brexit preparations for 2018-19, the Scottish Government had only spent £27 million. At the same time, Derek Mackay and Humza Yousaf were caught demanding extra cash to pay for Brexit related policing, because English police forces had received funding, as if the Barnett Formula with its provision for consequentials did not exist.

By February of this year, English councils had received £56.5 million to help them prepare for Brexit, while the Scottish Government had passed on zilch to Scottish councils from the £92 million it had received in large part for this very purpose.

In the meantime, councils had endless meetings in which they identified “risks, mitigation and potential cost pressures”, collated information, made plans and issued briefings about what was viewed as an impending disaster. 

Brexit day came and went on March 31st and then again on April 12th, and still not a penny came from Holyrood for hard-pressed councils. 

Now another Brexit day looms, and though each council will no doubt welcome its £50k windfall – because all money is welcome in these cash-strapped times – it is risible. For each council, that represents less than 0.03 per cent of the Brexit pot which came to the Scottish Government – a very belated drop in the ocean.

Each council has received the same share of the £1.6 million regardless of size, and in many areas I doubt it will even cover the cost of staff time diverted to date in trying to plan for Brexit. 

It should go without saying that this is a pressure councils could have done without. After another year in which the Scottish Government made a real terms cut to un-ringfenced funding for core local authority services, fewer council staff are doing ever more with less resource.

The question should be asked why COSLA asked for such a modest share of the £92 million for Scottish councils, given how much the UK Government evidently thought English councils needed. 

The larger issue here is the SNP’s cynical exploitation of Barnett consequentials and its centralist hoarding of money and power to the detriment of local authorities – and local democracy. 

Barnett consequentials are for the SNP the independence gift that can’t stop giving.

On the one hand the Scottish Government gets regular windfalls when the UK Government increases public spending – so the last budget saw an extra £950 million flow to Scotland – and devolution means the Scottish Government is free to choose to spend this money as it wishes. Thus the SNP has been able to fund a series of pet projects – most notoriously perhaps, baby boxes, and most expensively free university tuition – which allow it to assert a moral and political superiority to Westminster. 

On the other hand, the complexities of Barnett funding and devolution enable the SNP to play several cards in its grievance politics. There’s the hard-done-by card when it complains loudly (but not always accurately) whenever the rest of the UK gets public funding for things not in Scotland (HS2 and Heathrow expansion are cases in point). Then there’s the Westminster-bad card when, by not spending any Barnett consequential monies on equivalent items in Scotland – such as in this case of Brexit preparations – the SNP ensures the Scots feel the maximum fear and pain of Westminster politics. 

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