By Sean Robertson - Socialist Party Highland branch
Last month the Highland Council’s budget plans for 2018/19 were decided. Councillors added a further around 15m cuts to the hundreds of millions of pounds cuts to public services suffered by the region since the financial crisis of 2007/8.
Many of the effects of a decade of cuts are obvious to Highlanders. Roads are in a perilous state, schools are in a state of disrepair, play parks left to rack and ruin, paths and side streets ungritted, drains not cleared or maintained, grass cut less often: the list goes on and on.
But this year’s cuts-budget is an appalling, heartless attack aimed all aspects of our community. It is like death by a thousand cuts, with small but significant amounts of money being taken from every part of the budget, possibly to obscure the extent of the austerity attack. If one large service was completely cut then building an opposition, particularly among specific service users and workers would be easier.
The widespread nature of this cuts budget means almost everyone, will be affected. Democracy is under attack – community council budgets are to be halved.
Social work and adult learning are to facing swingeing cuts, for example the removal of services such as the out of hours call service.
Leisure services are to be cut with the flagship theatre, Eden Court to lose 50% of its funding. Funding for community projects is to be slashed by about half.
In education teaching posts are to be lost, and the massive cut in projected capital spending, reduced by around £50m, will mean that the proposed upgrade and new build of schools such as in Tain and Alness will be delayed or cancelled and road improvement and flood prevention work may be shelved.
Other areas cut which have an obvious detrimental effect on our communities are reduced funding for offender rehabilitation social workers, cuts to community improvement grants, cuts to funds for survivors of abuse such as Women’s Aid which will have a devastating effect on service users.
Some funds to tackle homelessness, an endemic problem in the Highlands will also be taken away. Even the visually impaired are not spread the axe with long established employment charitable business Blindcraft facing cuts because of the council’s short sightedness!
Mismanagement in the past is making the situation worse. PPP contracts, which in any case should be scrapped with no compensation – they are simply a means for private leeches to bleed the public purse dry – cost the council millions every year and they have contracts worth £27 million which pay for maintenance and hire of 15 schools. In-house the council could have built and run these schools at a fraction of the cost.
As well as cutting vital public services the council aim to pile more misery on Highlanders by increasing revenue, such as by increasing parking and public toilet charges. It’ll now cost at least 50p to spend a penny! Council provided childcare costs for extra hours will increase significantly and paid- for refuse collection will also go up. Most painfully, council tax will increase by £30 pounds per annum on average.
These increases virtually wipe out the derisory pay increases enjoyed by both public and private workers over the last few years and pile on additional pressure to those trying to handle the ever-increasing cost of living.
Council cuts are only half the story. NHS highland is running tens of millions over budget and various services are under threat notably in Skye and Caithness. Mental health services are poor or non-existent with many young people having to travel out of the region for treatment.
Highland is a prime example in microcosm of how all mainstream parties are incapable or unwilling to fight the cuts. Before this administration an SNP-led coalition carried out relentless attack s on our public services. Now a coalition of independents, Lib Dems and Labour councillors all choose to hammer our community by imposing politically motivated cuts instead of leading the fight back.
But fortunately, many people across the region are awake up to the fact that Scotland and the Highlands doesn’t have to be this way; we can fight back; we can resist cuts. So far, this resistance has been sporadic, like the fight to stop closures of wards in Caithness which lead to the far North’s biggest demonstration for decades or the victorious fight of parents which forced council axemen to stop additional needs support workers being cut.
Socialist Party Highland, is taking an active part in the community fightback. Currently the cuts are probably abstract in the minds of workers and service users. When workers’ jobs or services are threatened however the consequences of austerity will become all too real. We hope to bring communities trades unions and young people and workers together in Highland to fight back against all cuts, and for councillors to back budgets which meet the needs of their community not the austerity agenda of the cutters at Holyrood and Westminster.