This is my first budget and I have to say I am underwhelmed by the offering from the administration.
It’s a budget – like other recent ones – which seeks to tread water in the face of SNP austerity.
Yes, SNP austerity, not Westminster or Conservative austerity. Because there was plenty of money in the generous settlement the Conservative Government gave the SNP Government under the Barnett Formula to maintain – or even increase – local authority funding. But the SNP decided, as it has done every year for the last 10 years, to reduce the cash it would give councils.
When Labour alone made up Fife’s administration, they were very vocal about the way the SNP was systematically hammering councils by taking away spending.
This year though their coalition with the SNP means they have had to bite their tongues. As they have been forced to shore up a lucklustre nationalist government which is failing to get grips with Scotland’s economic and social problems.
In turn, the SNP in Fife has been utterly silent about the earth-scorching cuts to council budgets proposed by their Finance Minister Derek Mackay. They’ve also been silent about how it was only softened by the £11 million uplift secured by the Greens for their votes at Holyrood.
Fife SNP leader David Alexander even sweetly waved away Mr Mackay’s embarrassing miscalculation which led him to claw back half a million from his initial offer to Fife.
So what of Fife’s 2018 budget? Well, for a start, it flies in the face of what the SNP promised the electorate last May.
About the only Labour policy Fife’s SNP campaigned distinctively against before last year’s election was cuts to education funding. And in particular, the elimination from the school estate of vacant teaching posts which had remained unfilled due to the national teacher shortage. And now lo and behold, the SNP are co-presenting a budget which does exactly that.
I can’t find exact figures for the number of teaching posts which will go for good, but one thing that is certain is that this measure together with other money-saving “reorganisations” will mean pupil teacher ratios – which are already not great in Fife – will get worse and class sizes will inevitably increase. Indeed cutting the number of educational psychologists and other support staff – as this budget proposes – is also going to make it that much harder for our schools to deal with children with particular problems.
One thing I was pleased to see was that the joint administration has decided not to take forward the proposed abolition of instrumental music instruction in our schools.
The reason I started a petition in the autumn against this is because I witnessed the distress and anxiety of instrumental teachers in Fife who had been called into a management meeting just before Christmas to be told their jobs would be going, and they could retrain as classroom teachers or face compulsory reduundancy.
Now these teachers run what is undoubtedly a Cinderella service. Year after year it has been put through the salami slicer, and made more selective due to a 40% rise in fees in just 2 years, so that every year the teachers who are left are doing more with less for the love of their subject and their students.
But every year, – in a way that no other group of teachers, or indeed any other group of Fife Council workers experiences – these teachers are picked on and threatened with the loss of their livelihoods, only to be given a last minute stay of execution.
This isn’t just demoralising for everyone – schools, parents and pupils are given the message that instrumental music is about as important to education as far as Fife Council is concerned as tiddlywinks – it’s also an immoral and unacceptable way to treat an immensely valued workface.
So I would like to ask the leaders to stand by a recommendation made by an education scrutiny panel in years gone by that they will not preside over any more budgets which routinely threaten instrumental teachers and trash music in our schools.
As I’ve said, this budget – like its Big Sister SNP budget at Holyrood – is same old, same old. A budget for cuts in public services and higher taxes.
Like its predecessors, this budget piles on the misery for council staff; departments which have been cut to the bone can now cope with 190 fewer full-time workers.
There’s no bold or innovative thinking, on either social or economic fronts. Anyone who thinks this isn’t needed obviously hasn’t seen the papers in the last few weeks: looming redundancies at Bifab, businesses fleeing our high streets, increasing child poverty, rising drug deaths, worsening pupil performance, and of course the appalling state of our roads.
There is one recommendation in the Conservative amendment I would like to commend to you because it addresses head-on – and very cheaply if I may say so – the lack of economic stimulus in Fife, and that is the Levenmouth rail link.
It is the single, best way of bringing a game-changing level of economic and social regeneration to Levenmouth and the surrounding area – everyone knows this, yet people are still sitting on their hands.
The SNP at Holyrood seems to have kicked the project into the long grass again and Fife Council is waiting on Transport Council for yet more crossing of t-s and dotting of i-s.
The wonderful doughty campaigners for the Levenmouth rail link commissioned a report into how the Borders people got the Scottish Government to build their link. Absolutely key to the success of their campaign was a rail expert specially employed by Borders Council to drive the campaign forward. Without that officer Borders Council would not have been able to convince the Scottish Government to back the project.
Now it’s time for Fife Council to show the Scottish Governemnt that they mean business with their rail link as well – it’s not a huge amount of money, but it’s a real concrete commitment to economic development in Fife.