We are largely oblivious, thanks to the efforts of the Scottish media.
No, not to what the First Minister thought about yesterday’s rugby match, but actually something that matters. This week is the most important in Scottish politics for several years to come. On Wednesday, the Scottish Parliament will debate and pass the Budget bill. Stepping gaily from Stage 1 to Stage 3 – only the Scottish Government can propose amendments and it clearly sees no need to alter its original work – by Friday, we will know our financial fates in some detail.
Not only will Holyrood agree how and why it will spend the money over the next three years, but many local authorities will also be setting their budgets for the coming year on Thursday. These will determine the size and scale of service cuts in the year ahead and give some indication of the pain to come in future years.
Like I said – momentous stuff, yet there is little chat about it anywhere. And while the Scottish Government’s is not a bad budget, that is not quite the same as a good budget.
The decision to protect NHS funding at the expense of everyone else’s is already showing signs of biting us. Despite having real terms increases in funding in the last few years, giving it more money than any other part of the public sector to spend, some health boards have managed to overspend and are frantically clawing back, trying to balance the books before year-end. This sloppy financial rectitude is the direct result of not requiring tight fiscal management. The attitude at the NHS is very different to that of local government which now has efficient in its mindset: it does not augur well.
Inexplicably, the Scottish Government appears to have forgotten – or at least, forgotten to include it – the financial consequences from the welfare reform bill, not least that some additional money is going to transfer from Westminster to pay for newly devolved activities like council tax benefit. More worryingly, there has been little attempt to model the impact of the changes coming our way. The Institute of Fiscal Studies has already reckoned that more children will end up growing up in poverty as a result of the bill’s worst excesses. True, the changes will not be felt in full until 2013 and beyond, but that is slap bang in the middle of the Scottish Spending Review period. It is bound to have an impact on planned funded activity in a whole host of public sector streams.
Yet, it warrants no mention. Partly this is because the UK Government has not done the modelling required at that level to allow the Scottish Government and other bodies to work out the financial consequences. (I do not think I have ever seen such a pig in a poke piece of legislation and it would be amusing if the potential adverse impact on vulnerable people and families was not so enormous). But there is no escaping the suspicion that it all just slipped officials and Ministers’ minds.
While the big budget sets the parameters, it will be councils who make the potentially life-changing decisions on the nitty-gritty of local services. Or not.
This is, after all, an election year. All the parties vying for top dog status in our proportional democratic system for local government will be on their best behaviour. There will be cuts but expect some spoonfuls of sugar to make the medicine go down.
What will be most interesting – to the burd, at least – is how well SNP led administrations, or ones where they are involved, follow the party’s big narrative on priorities for spending. How many will focus on early years and early intervention activity, for example? How many will focus on local capital projects (albeit with much less money and borrowing consent to play with)? How many will meet the challenge of the Change Funds by creating local microcosms to help speed the process of shifting from crisis to preventative spend? And how many will make the key theme of their budgets and fiscal approaches pre-election the need to tackle the scourge of youth unemployment?
I will be surprised if more than a handful do anything of the sort. The disconnect politically between the SNP nationally and locally is a curious thing. But it also exists and existed when others were in power: why do you think Labour and the Lib Dems ring-fenced hundreds (literally) of spending priorities? They did it because they wanted to force through their political priorities and could not trust their colleagues at local level to make that happen voluntarily.
Currently, we have everyone in every budget area arguing that their particular activity amounts to preventative spending. True, a case can be made for most types of expenditure that if not invested in now will result in costly consequences down the line. But it shows how a lack of definition in this innovation has allowed many whose activities should be under threat under a preventative spending approach to corral their wagons and make their case vociferously. Throw in a few vested interests, a considerable number of two-dimensional councillor types for whom policy is not a strong point, and you have in place a local soup that will ensure that while family centres may close, playgroups lose their grants, classroom assistants cut and respite packages reduced, there will still be money for new road signs, planted flower beds and Christmas lights.
It would be nice to think our media might come good and realise, just in time, how crucial this coming week in Scottish politics is. A little analysis at national and local level of budget proposals would serve us all well. Which, of course, won’t happen.
There is too much devil in the detail of budgetary proposals to hold the media’s or indeed, our interest. Even though it is that detail that will determine how we live our lives in the next few years.