Please forgive this somewhat parochial post, which is important to me and 75,000 other voters living in the Scottish shire of Moray. Welcome in particular to readers of The Northern Scot and The Press & Journal newspapers!
NB: I have amended the original post on this subject to reflect feedback from a Moray Councillor on the facts of the current structure of the Moray Council Administration (for which, thank you, sir).
Politics – The Big Screen Scene
Politics has always been an adversarial spectacle. These days politics has become an anarchic bunfight of almost epic proportions. In the UK, the US and on the European continent, all bets are off as to how the political landscape might shape up over the coming decade; perhaps over the next generation. Who knows? For some people this is all terribly disconcerting.
For others, like me, it’s a breath of fresh air after a generation when politics eventually became a system whereby politicians told us what to think, what to do, how to behave, what to say, what was acceptable, what was unacceptable and so on and so forth. Politics was not so much about politicians listening and responding to what people wanted from their lives, their communities and their societies, but rather what politicians did to people.
That approach of ‘doing politics’ to people appears to be unravelling, thankfully, albeit not quickly enough for some of us. Quite where politics is heading is anybody’s guess; however, I’m one of those folk who’s relishing being unshackled from the yoke of what Peter Oborne called in his eponymous book, the triumph of the political class.
Here where I live in the beautiful shire of Moray, in the north of Scotland, local politics is on the agenda for the coming weeks as we prepare for council elections next month. This post focuses on the question, how do I decide for whom to vote as my local elected representative?
On 4 May, about 75,000 of us living here in Moray will have the opportunity to vote for our local council members. Forty-five candidates are standing for 26 ward member appointments. Fifteen candidates are Independent; 13 candidates are Scottish National Party (SNP); 8 candidates are Scottish Conservative and Unionist (Conservative); 3 candidates are Scottish Liberal Democrats and the remaining 6 candidates are either Scottish Labour Party (Labour), Scottish Greens or undeclared.
Currently, Moray is governed by a minority Conservative/Independent coalition; there are 11 councillors in the Administration who are either Conservative (2) or Independent (9). Outside of the Administration there are 11 SNP councillors, 2 Labour councillors, one Conservative and one Independent. Operating Moray Council, or any council for that matter, with a minority Administration makes it difficult for the Administration to pursue its objectives.
Voting: How To Decide?
If, like me, you live in Moray, on what basis should you and I cast our votes next month? What messages from the candidates should we be looking for which would encourage us to vote for them? I said earlier that politics had become somewhat anarchic in recent years. To be clear, I have no dogmatic political affiliation: I’m not a Conservative, nor a Labour man; I’m neither Liberal nor Green; I’m not a Scottish Nationalist. I’m a Libertarian by instinct and will vote for whichever candidate(s) persuade me that they will contribute to the governance of Moray responsibly and in the face of economic realities in particular.
Where Do You Start?
The starting point, surely, must involve looking at the current situation within Moray Council and asking how is the Council performing? Then, one should ask to what extent do candidates’ manifestos reflect the reality of the Council’s situation? If a candidate puts forward a manifesto which bears little or no relation to the reality of Moray Council’s situation, then that candidate if elected is unlikely to be of much use to anybody. Conversely, if a candidate puts forward a manifesto which demonstrates some connection with the realities of the Council’s performance, and how that candidate intends to make a difference to how we’re governed locally, then that candidate must merit consideration for my vote – and yours too, I would suggest.
Best Value – How Is Moray Council Performing?
Since 2003, all of Scotland’s local authorities have had a statutory duty to provide ‘Best Value’ to their taxpayers. This requires Moray Council to ‘demonstrate accountability through the use of public performance reporting, so that stakeholders are told what quality of service is being delivered and what they can expect in future.’
In the critical area of how Moray Council uses taxpayers’ money, the Council must under the law, ‘demonstrate a framework for planning and budgeting that includes detailed and realistic plans linked to available resources, to achieve the authority’s goals, including community planning commitments, at service delivery level.’ In other words, Moray Council is expected to live within its means.
The question is, has Moray Council been living within its means? Perhaps more specifically, have the elected members been providing ‘political and strategic leadership’ as they’re required to do under Moray Council’s published guidance on the role and responsibilities of councillors? Have councillors been working collectively to ensure that our local government is effective and efficient, and delivering services economically?
Now, like so many local authorities across Scotland, Moray Council is not in particularly good shape. How do we know this?
Well, Moray Council has been on the receiving end of Best Value Audits for the past decade or so, the first Audit having taken place in 2006. The most recent Audit was in 2013, and Audit Scotland published a progress report in October 2015. At the time of the Audit, the expectation was that, in order to live within its means, Moray Council would be expected to deliver £30 million of savings by the end of the 2016/17 financial year. In the coming year to March 2018 Moray Council will be expected to further reduce its spending by £16 million. Why so much financial pressure?
Well, Moray Council’s budget for 2017/18 is just under £200 million, of which £120 million, or 60% will come from the Scottish Government. Council tax will provide Moray Council with £38 million, or 19% of its budget with the remainder to come from Non-Domestic Rates and, increasingly, from the Council’s financial reserves. This latter point hints at the fact that Moray Council might not be living within its means.
Moray Council is, in effect, having to raid its savings not to invest for the future, but simply to keep the wheels on. This isn’t good. Indeed, Audit Scotland notes that ‘councils are increasingly relying on the use of reserves to bridge projected funding gaps. [There is] a dependency on incremental changes to services, increasing charges and reducing employee numbers in order to make savings. These are neither sufficient nor sustainable solutions for the scale of challenge facing councils.’
What’s Really Going On?
So, what’s really going on here? Why is it that local authorities across Scotland are faced with being squeezed until the pips squeak?
Well, there are a number of issues at play, but one wonders if the Scottish Government is on the one hand deliberately lowering the priority of council funding (perhaps in favour of more eye-catching, national initiatives supporting the SNP’s cause at Holyrood government level), whilst on the other hand refusing to use its new tax raising powers potentially to the benefit of Scotland’s local councils and indeed other public services. Incidentally, as a Libertarian I’m in favour of the lowest levels of taxation consistent with government sticking to the provision of services that only government can and should provide. Over the last 5 years or so, there’s no question that the Scottish Government has been reducing the funds made available to local authorities in real terms.
Part of the problem also is that Scotland’s new funding deal agreed with HM Treasury directly links the Scottish Government’s income with Scotland’s economic performance and, therefore, its tax receipts. So, Scotland’s economic performance will come into sharper focus in future years. However, Scotland’s SNP Government is making a hash of the economy and, given the wider circumstances described above, is clearly unable and/or unwilling to fund local councils to the extent that councils would wish to be funded.
It’s beyond the scope of this particular post to dwell on Scotland’s economic performance other than to say that it’s weak (understatement) compared to the rest of the UK. The SNP Government is devoting most of its energy and time to being fixated on the issue of Scotland’s independence – at the expense of governing the country responsibly. Whilst governments cannot and must not see themselves as wealth creators, they can – and do in Scotland’s case – act as wealth destroyers.
Bear in mind that this is against a backdrop where public spending per head is higher in Scotland than anywhere else in the UK, other than in Northern Ireland. In other words, despite Scotland benefiting from British taxpayers’ largesse more so than any other region in England and Wales, the SNP Government still manages to make a dog’s breakfast of the economy and the prioritisation of public services’ funding. Let’s leave to another day the question of how Scotland would fare as an independent country if it were obliged to stand on its own two feet and live within its national means. Notwithstanding, perhaps this is why Scotland being governed by the European Commission and subsidised by the European Union is such an attractive ‘independence’ option for the Scottish Nationalists?
It’s not surprising, therefore, that the Scottish Government is planning to reduce its funding of local authorities in the years ahead; you can’t allocate money which you don’t or won’t have, and Moray Council, like all other Scottish councils, will be squeezed year on year indefinitely. When all’s said and done, for this lamentable state of affairs, for the most part you can thank the SNP.
Moray Council – Living Within Its Means?
So, in this coming financial year Moray Council will need to use £8 million of its reserves just to support the provision of general services, ie not for investment in future service improvements. In other words, 4% of the Council’s 2017/18 budget will be funded from reserves. According to Moray Council’s Convener, Councillor Stewart Cree, at current expenditure levels the Council will have exhausted its reserves by the autumn of 2018.
Now, does this sound to you like a Council living within its means?
Whatever you think about the SNP Government’s economic and governance incompetence (for that is what’s at the heart of this issue), the fact is that like most, if not all local authorities across Scotland, Moray Council is faced with operating under excruciating financial pressure in the years ahead. The questions at this stage then are, what does it take to be a Moray councillor under the circumstances? What should you and I be looking for in terms of casting our respective votes in favour of one candidate over another on 4 May?
Identifying Worthwhile Candidates
In deciding who best deserves my vote, I’ll be looking for a number of signals in the candidates’ manifestos. I’ll want to see evidence of the following:
Understanding Reality. An understanding of Moray Council’s financial situation, not least recognition that a ‘more of the same, but better’ approach will simply not the cut the mustard. If a candidate shows no sign of realising that Moray Council is, to all intents and purposes, heading for insolvency, then that candidate is putting himself/herself forward under false pretences. I would also question to what extent the candidate had done background research into undertaking their potential role as a councillor if their manifesto makes little or no reference to Moray Council’s parlous condition.
Taxpayers Matter More Than Politics. A willingness to set aside factional political nonsense in the interests of the collective responsibility of the Council as a whole. Moray councillors have a track record of putting their petty political differences over and above our interests as taxpayers. So much so that Audit Scotland noted that, ‘basic building blocks for Best Value, [which] are now well developed in many councils, are still in their infancy, or only now being effectively applied in Moray’. This after almost 15 years of a statutory duty for Moray Council to deliver Best Value to us, the taxpayers. One wonders what the elected members have been doing for the past decade and more?
Practical Proposals. Practical proposals for turning around Moray Council and developing a strategy founded squarely on a requirement for the local authority to live within its means. For as long as Scotland is governed by the SNP, the country’s economy will almost certainly go from bad to worse to dire. So, any candidate who puts forward airy-fairy proposals for taking Moray forward to a land of milk and honey should be treated with extreme caution. Chances are they know less about the Council’s situation than you do by reading this post.
It’s The Economy, Stupid
It was President Bill Clinton who once said on the subject of politics, ‘It’s the economy, stupid’. How right he was and remains to this day. So, in preparing to cast your vote in a couple of weeks’ time, you may wish to reflect on this post and in particular on the fact that Scotland’s economy is in a bit of a mess. There’s no escaping this nationally and, therefore, locally since the greatest proportion of local government funds come to us by grace of the SNP Government in Edinburgh (taken from you as taxes in the first place, don’t forget). Since the SNP is hell-bent on making the case for a second referendum on Scotland’s ‘independence’ from the UK (the Scots provided the wrong answer for the SNP in 2014), then don’t hold your breath for an economic turnaround, nor the SNP’s capability to govern responsibly.
What this means when you step into the polling booth on 4 May is that if you vote for a candidate whose manifesto is at odds with the tenor of this blog post, then you’re probably voting for a political shambles in Moray over the next 4 years. It will be interesting to see how many candidates demonstrate a proper understanding of Moray Council’s condition and, moreover, how they intend to contribute to its good governance in the coming years of increasing financial stringency. If I spot such a candidate, he or she will get my vote – regardless of political persuasion.
Thanks for reading this rather lengthy post. It’s important stuff because it’s about the most important form of politics: local politics. Oh, and please share this post with your friends if you live here in Moray (click on the relevant button(s) below).
See you at the polling booth! Love democracy; they don’t do it in the European Union (SNP please note).
According to the SNP, the 2014 referendum on whether Scotland should be an independent nation was a once-in-a-generation opportunity. Unfortunately for the SNP, Scotland’s voters delivered the wrong result. So now, in the backdraft of a UK-wide referendum on the UK’s continued membership of the European Union, the SNP have decided that the UK’s voters delivered the right result as far as the SNP is concerned. The UK’s decision to leave the EU allows the SNP to say, ‘But Scotland doesn’t want to leave the EU, so we need to have another shot at securing independence (where ‘independence’ means Scotland being governed by a foreign oligarchy – the European Commission) and being able to suck on the teat of the EU.’
Let’s be clear though: there is little or no chance of Scotland breezing back into the European Union should it ever achieve independence. Nor is there the slightest guarantee, far from it, that an independent Scotland – governed from Brussels or Edinburgh – would cakewalk into prosperity. Generally, the SNP is consistently and wholly disingenuous on the matters of the attractiveness to the EU of an independent Scotland, and Scotland’s economic prospects under Scottish nationalist-socialism.
Personally, I’m keen for there to be a second referendum (IndyRef2) on Scotland’s independence – primarily because of my democratic and Libertarian instincts – albeit the SNP’s reason (Brexit) for demanding another referendum is flaky. However, as part of any IndyRef2, we would need some way of putting to bed for at least a generation any notions of IndyRef3, IndyRef4, IndyRef 5 etc.
How would I vote in IndyRef2? If genuine independence was on offer – Scotland’s own head of state, own currency, own central bank, own foreign policy, own armed forces, own border controls and so on, and with the whole shebang governed not from Brussels, but from Edinburgh – I’d vote for independence. If such independence were to be achieved, I’d emigrate to England the next day simply because I’m too old to endure the socio-economic consequences of a genuinely independent Scotland. Starting again from 300 years back would be a young man’s game.
However, genuine Scottish independence will never be on the table. The SNP don’t have the guts for it.