SNP 'cut 22,000 council jobs', claims pro-union campaign group” – Scotsman headline, April 28, 2021.


Too many council jobs have been lost but the culprit is Tory austerity imposed by Westminster. Independence is the only cure.


Scotland in Union (SiU) is a pro-Union campaign group launched in March 2015. Board members include Johanna Baxter, Unison’s head of local government bargaining and a member of Labour’s Scottish Executive Committee, as well as a candidate for the party in the upcoming election. SiU’s chief executive is Pamela Nash, the former Labour MP for Airdrie and Shotts who was ousted by the SNP’s Neil Gray in 2015. She is on the right of the Labour Party and served as the parliamentary private secretary to Jim Murphy. She is still active politically and tried and failed to get re-selected as a Labour candidate for the Airdrie by-election on May 6.

The National: Scotland in Union chief Pamela NashScotland in Union chief Pamela Nash

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The SiU website claims that the SNP have presided over a loss of 22,000 jobs in local government since coming to power in 2007. It says that in the third quarter of 2007 there were 230,000 full-time equivalent local government employees (excluding police and fire). It goes on to claim that the very latest figures for the final quarter of 2020 show that number stood at 208,000, which would be a cut of nearly 10%.

The SiU website adds that its own calculations indicate that the local government budget for 2021/22 should be £12.14 billion if Holyrood “had passed on real terms rises since 2015/16” - presumably meaning the Barnett consequential. Instead, says SiU, the Scottish local authority budget sits at only £11.62bn. As a result, says Pamela Nash: “The SNP has taken an axe to local government services”.


Local authority data (spending and employment) is notoriously difficult to measure accurately over time, for a variety of reasons. Council activities change as central and devolved governments alter local authority remits almost yearly. Also, staff are transferred in and out of local authority employment through other parts of the public sector. For example, staff were transferred from Scottish Borders Council to SB Cares on April 1, 2015, and from Angus Council to Angus Alive on December 1, 2015, thus explaining part of the decrease in local government employment that year.

What is clear is that there has been a significant reduction in local authority employment since austerity policies were introduced at Westminster in 2010. Scottish Government figures published by the chief economist show that local authority employment numbers fell from 294,800 in Q1 1999 to 252,000 in Q1 2019. (Note that the official figure for 2019 implies the SiU figure for current local authority employment is too low).

This evidence suggests there was a fall in employment of some 42,000 in local authorities between the start of devolution and the start of the pandemic. A 2017 study by the Fraser of Allander Institute think tank of local authority finance (available on their website) suggests a fall of around 30,000 local authority positions, in the period after 2010. We stress that the exact numbers in each case are unreliable due to the qualifying factors mentioned above. However, the degree of magnitude of job cuts is obviously large. It is reasonable to conclude that local authority employment numbers have fallen significantly not only in Scotland but across the UK.

In fact, the evidence suggests that the biggest cuts fell on English local authorities. Work by the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (Austerity Uncovered, 2015) points to the Welsh and Scottish devolved administrations as alleviating the extent of the Treasury cuts through their discretionary budgets.


The central question is what was the main driver of these employment cuts? The answer is the austerity policies imposed by Westminster. But again, the devolved administrations have been to the fore in resisting austerity cuts.

In Scotland, according to the Fraser of Allander Institute, local government spending fell by 9.5% cent between 2010/11 and 2017 – equivalent to £1bn in real terms. Yet the respected Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that local authorities in England lost a massive 27% of their spending power between 2010/11 and 2015/16, in real terms. Scottish Government data shows that councils received a cash-terms increase of 3.6% between 2013 and 2020, whereas councils in England have suffered cash terms reduction of 14.7%.

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The essence of the SiU criticism is that the SNP government could have done more in mitigation of austerity cuts to local councils. Their claim (reiterated by Labour) is that some of the Barnett consequential was syphoned off for other SNP priorities. To bolster its claims, the SiU is careful to select a figure for local government spending which is restricted to the base budget line (known as Total Local Government Finance Circular). But this figure ignores other resources provided to local government by Holyrood for priority national goals (known as Funding Outwith the Core Settlement). In 2021/22, this extra local authority funding amounts to £650 million, or 6% of the baseline budget (Scottish Budget Document, p74).

According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, even with a slight loosening of austerity planned for the pre-covid 2020/21 budget cycle, council spending per person in England is a stunning 20% lower per person than it was in 2010. This indicates that there was no built-in Barnett consequential sufficient to maintain real council spending in Scotland over the period – particularly as the SNP government chose to prioritise and protect NHS and care budgets. The fact that electors have gone on voting for SNP administrations implies that Scotland supports that choice.


We should note that the SNP have proposed a reform of local government finance under devolution, to let councils determine more of their own resources. The SNP have committed to holding a Citizen’s Assembly to consider the future for local government funding, if it is elected on May 6. Note: all SNP attempts at reforming local government finance have been blocked by the opposition Unionist parties.


There is no arguing that local authority employment and resources have been under threat from Westminster austerity. But SiU gets no points for pretending such austerity is the fault of the Scottish Government.

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