Deprived Scottish councils face £90 per head greater cuts compared to rich ones

Deprived areas in Scotland are seeing larger cuts to budgets - of around £90 per head - compared to affluent ones, according to a new report.

The report by researchers at Glasgow and Heriot-Watt Universities - Coping with cuts? Local government and poorer communities - is part of a Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) programme of research to track the impact of tighter public spending and the state of the economy on poorer people and places.

Local government spending (excluding police, schools, housing benefit) is set to fall by 24% in Scotland in real terms between 2008 and 2015. The research analyses the national change and distribution of budget cuts across Scotland and England.

The most deprived Scottish councils reduced expenditure between 2010 and 2013 by £90 per head more than the most affluent councils did – a pattern and figure similar to councils in England (around £100).

Cuts are also generally greater in the west rather than the east of Scotland – the difference being £47 per head. Areas of the former Strathclyde region (Glasgow, Dunbartonshire, Lanarkshire, Renfrewshire, Ayrshire, Argyll and Bute) together with Dumfries and Galloway and Eilean Sar see greater cuts; whereas areas in the former regions of Borders , Central, Lothian, Fife, Tayside, Grampian, Highland, Orkney, Shetland fare better.

The report also includes detailed analysis of the approaches taken by three English case study councils (Newcastle, Coventry and Milton Keynes). Similar research will also be undertaken in Scotland. In relation to the English case studies the research found:

  • Substantial savings have been generated by a range of 'efficiency' programmes (including the loss of many ‘back room’ jobs). But the report warns opportunities to identify further such savings are rapidly diminishing.
  • ‘Efficiency’ strategies are increasingly being replaced by strategies which will impact directly on front-line services. A ‘retrenchment’ of local government services is underway – councils will be delivering or supporting fewer services and those services which continue may be targeted more narrowly on the most vulnerable and disadvantaged groups only. People will be expected to do more for themselves – from running leisure centres or caring for elderly neighbours to picking up litter.
  • Early causalities in the case study areas include: services for children and young people; arts and culture activities; neighbourhood wardens; street cleaning; and children’s centres. There are warnings that care for the elderly and disabled will be increasingly focused just on those with the most critical needs. 
  • The case-study authorities are trying their best to minimise impacts on poor or vulnerable populations, for example by making greater cuts to services benefiting more affluent people and trying to protect services most used by poor or vulnerable people. Nonetheless, the cumulative effect of cuts will be largest on vulnerable groups who lack the resources to ‘buy in’ alternative to the public services which have been lost.

Local authorities are also seeking to balance their budgets by increasing income and reducing demands on services via measures such as: developing businesses and attracting jobs; refocusing resources on the most vulnerable; and investing in programmes to stop needs intensifying. The study found however that:

  • There is a real risk that an increased targeting of services on the most vulnerable groups will undermine the capacity of local authorities to provide a broad range of services across the social spectrum. Related dangers are that such services will then become stigmatised and that this in turn will undermine the willingness of council tax payers who do not rely on these services to continue paying for them.
  • Local authority officers are struggling to implement significant changes to the local authority role at a time when staff resources are being cut. As one officer remarked: “If you’re going to drive a huge change agenda, and the biggest change agenda that I’ve probably seen in 30 odd years of government – you’re going to need more capacity, not less.”
  • The return from investment strategies will not be immediate, and in the short term the contributions from economic growth will not be significant in terms of reducing needs. Further, in relation to economic growth, localities do not compete on a ‘level playing field’. There is a danger that an increasing expectation that councils can fund services through growth will increase the gap between affluent and deprived places.

John Low, Policy and Research Manager at JRF, said: “This is an important and very timely report which provides graphic illustrations of how spending cuts are playing out on the ground. As we approach the fourth austerity settlement for local government in December, it is clear the cuts are biting deep into the poorest and most deprived communities. Unless we can muster the national will to correct or mitigate the unacceptable divergence of resources between more and less affluent authorities, we are slowly but inexorably creating a more divided society.”

Annette Hastings, co-author of the report, said: “The changes underway within local government should not be underestimated. They will have significant consequences for the broad range of ordinary people who use local public services. If budget cuts continue at the levels anticipated, all but the most vulnerable will be expected to do more for themselves and to supplement state services with commercial alternatives. While the most vulnerable have been protected thus far from the worst effects of budget cuts, it is not clear how long this can continue. And we might also be concerned about how the people who just miss out when resources are refocused can cope with service reductions: we could be storing up problems for the future – for them and for society more generally.

Glen Bramley, report co-author, said: “The extent of these cuts, sustained over a period of years and in the face of rising demands and costs, is unprecedented. Quite complex changes are happening in the financing system as well, which makes it difficult to track the impact clearly and completely. However, we can say that the extent of the cuts is greater in the more deprived authorities, and that some important services relied on more by poorer people are being cut substantially.”

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For more information please contact Stuart Forsyth in the Media Relations Office on stuart.forsyth@glasgow.ac.uk or 0141 330 4831 or Danny Wright, JRF Media Relations, on 01904 615 958 / 07929 363 024 or daniel.wright@jrf.org.uk

Notes to Editors
1. The full report, Coping with cuts? Local government and poorer communities, by researchers from University of Glasgow and Heriot Watt is available under embargo to journalists by contacting the JRF press office. Afterwards they will be available to download for free from www.jrf.org.uk.
2. JRF commissioned this paper as part of its programme on austerity, which aims to track, understand and highlight the effects of policy changes, tighter public spending and the state of the economy on poor people and places.
3. The report is an interim summary report of the findings and implications of the second phase of a larger research project. It extends the analysis of national changes in England reported in the first phase and provides the first analysis of the distribution of budget cuts in Scotland. A report on the third and final phase of the research will be published in spring 2015. .
4. The research involved detailed analysis of the strategic approaches of three English local authorities to managing austerity, based on forensic analysis of budgetary information and savings proposals, analysis of key documents and plans, and a series of interviews with senior officers within the authorities.
5. As well as demonstrating the risks to vulnerable populations, it also provides practical advice to local authorities on how they can research and monitor the impacts of their spending cuts on poor people and poor places.
6. JRF is a funder of research for social change in the UK. We aim to reduce poverty and strengthen communities for all generations. For more information visit www.jrf.org.uk.
7. JRHT provides housing and care services, and demonstrates innovative approaches to both. For more information visit www.jrht.org.uk.
8. JRF is on Twitter. Keep up to date with news and comments @jrf_uk. For press releases, blogs and responses follow @jrfmedia.
9. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust are completely separate from the other two Trusts set up by Joseph Rowntree in 1904; the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust (JRCT) and the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust Ltd (JRRT). More information about each organisation can be found at www.josephrowntree.org.

First published: 28 November 2013