06 February 2003

S1M-3807 Local Government Finance (Scotland) Order 2003 (SSI 2003/42)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Mr Murray Tosh): We move to the debate on motion S1M-3807, in the name of Andy Kerr, on the Local Government Finance (Scotland) Order 2003.
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Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): The order before us today is a very mean document indeed. It is ill-prepared and covered with hand annotations, but there is a more fundamental problem with it than that. The tables use 6 point print, and my old eyes no longer find it easy to read.
Dr Simpson: He should get some glasses.
Stewart Stevenson: With my presbyopia, myopia and hypermetropia—I have got them all—it is difficult to read.
In paragraph 3.1 of the Scottish ministers' report—the Local Government Finance (Scotland) Order 2003: Report by the Scottish Ministers under paragraph 2(3) of Schedule 12 to the Local Government Finance Act 1992 (SE 2003/16)—I began the hunt for the £14.077 million.
Paragraph 4.1 of the Scottish ministers' report purports to explain the non-domestic rate income—this print is too small for me to read—and the revenue support grant for the coming year. We have the explanation of taking £14.077 million out here and putting it back there, and unfortunately the figures balance: I congratulate you, minister.
Distributing an order that is hand annotated and in 6 point print invites the sort of scepticism with which I began to read the document, and that is unnecessary. I must say that the minister does rather better in the report, which is, at least, in 10 point print—thank you for that. I shall move on to some more serious points.
The one thing that comes across in the report is how little flexibility local government has these days. So much of the money that is allocated to local government is hypothecated for particular issues, and indeed some of it is also being used for competition.
It is time that we had another look at the business rates system, which is penalising town centres at the expense of retail parks. The reason for that is not just that there are small businesses at the centre and large ones at the periphery.
Although there has been an above average—and very welcome—rise in funding for Aberdeenshire Council, it still leaves the council very near the bottom of the table in per capita funding. Indeed, the funding that has been provided shows little recognition of the rurality of the area. People too often associate it with Aberdeen, which is unwarranted as far as funding is concerned.
That said, I should point out that the Executive is doing some good things. For example, three-year funding is much better than one-year funding, and we welcome that approach.
However, I have spent much of my life looking at numbers, and I return to those numbers, particularly the missing ones, which always give me cause for concern as far as local government and the Scottish Executive are concerned. For example, interest charges are dealt with in a rather arcane way in local government, and it is not at all clear against which assets the charges are being calculated. Indeed, we do not have a statement of the assets or liabilities of local government or of the Scottish Executive. One would have such statements for a commercial company or a business. The lack of such a statement makes it very hard to judge whether our assets are being used effectively—and I say so entirely objectively. In particular, the fact that the liabilities associated with the private finance initiative have not been included means that we are in danger of missing any potential problems when we come to supervise budgets.
As for some of the allocations—for example, those to the quality-of-life initiatives—it appears arbitrarily that half of the money has been given to education and half to other issues. Furthermore, staff are being diverted into pretty meaningless competitions at the expense of doing the job in hand and getting money for their departments.
There are still unfunded obligations such as the national road strategy, the climate change levy, the education bill and the McCrone agreement, which is a big issue, particularly in rural areas. Councillors go to councils with great enthusiasm, although some resign—such as a Tory in Aberdeenshire recently—because they feel that they cannot make a difference. However, that is the Tories for you.
At 35 per 100,000 people, Scotland has the fewest elected politicians of any country in Europe. In England, that figure is more than 40, while in Greece it is 650. Our councillors need the best possible support and the funding to enable them to do the job. I am far from certain that we have given them either.

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