Fears up to 22,000 jobs to be axed by councils

Half of Scotland’s top local authority officials fear that up to 22,000 council jobs could be lost as a result of public spending cuts.

They are also worried that vital services like education, bin collections and roads and buildings maintenance will bear the brunt.

Last night one council leader urged the Scottish Government to scrap the council tax freeze to help local authorities make ends meet.

Highland Council convener Michael Foxley said he would like to see two additional tax bands introduced to generate cash from high-value residential properties.

“Budget cuts will have a drastic impact on services in the Highlands and we expect up to 1,200 job losses over the next three years,” added the Liberal Democrat councilor.

“We have to drop 10% to 15% in our budget and we would like to put up council tax and establish another couple of bands to ease the pressure.”

A spokeswoman for the SNP said last night that ministers did not want to scrap the council tax freeze but it could not be ruled out until the UK Government revealed its spending plans.

A total of 39 local authority chief executives and finance directors were questioned for a poll carried out by financial and business advisers Grant Thornton. And 51% said they feared spending cuts would lead to job losses of between 6% and 10% – or between 13,200 and 22,000 jobs.

When asked which services they expected to be reduced most, 46% said transport and environmental services and 31% cited education.

Only one council chief executive backed the idea of reviewing the number of local authorities in Scotland, although a third of finance directors supported the move.

But 62% of respondents said they wanted to see greater use of shared services between authorities to improve efficiency while 10% backed more private sector involvement in the delivery of services.

Council officials said they would prefer to tackle challenges themselves and most believed that interference from central government or trade unions would hinder the process.

Last week union leaders reacted angrily to a decision to impose a three-year pay deal which could lead to strike action.

The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla) said that the Unison, Unite and GMB unions had left it with “no option” but to enforce a 0.65% pay increase for 2010-11, backdated to April 1.

It said the deal, which includes a pay freeze in 2011-12 and 2012-13, was essential to safeguard tens of thousands of jobs and council services.

The three unions represent about 5,800 council workers in Aberdeen, 7,100 in Aberdeenshire, 2,800 in Moray, 7,200 in Highland, 3,400 in Angus, 3,600 in Perth and Kinross and 5,200 in Dundee.

Grant Thornton director Gary Devlin said jobs losses were unlikely to be achieved without a compulsory redundancy programme.

“In times of financial challenge we expect to see local authorities prioritise services to people, such as social work, people at risk or vulnerable children and adults, often at the expense of investment in road or building maintenance,” he added.

“The results confirm that this trend will continue as councils seek to find savings of 15% of their budget over the next three years, which means we can expect more potholes in our roads, and possibly more leaking roofs in council buildings as maintenance is cut back.”

Aberdeen City Council Labour group leader Barney Crockett said last night that he was extremely concerned about the future of schools in the city.

“Education has been hit hard in the sense we have cut the number of teachers in recent times and our secondary schools are already struggling,” he said.

“It would be hard to take another knock and I am also extremely concerned that the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route could be shelved.”

Janet Adams, regional organiser of the GMB union which represents staff at Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire councils, said: “Nobody feels secure in their jobs because services are going to be cut.”

Highlands and Islands Labour MSP Dave Stewart said cutting transport spending in the region would be a major blow. “We have to be very careful because public-sector workers, through their spending, are vital contributors to the economies of small villages and towns,” he added.

Liberal Democrat chief whip Mike Rumbles said he was “astonished” by the survey findings because the Scottish Government had yet to publish its draft budget. “Ministers have said nothing to MSPs but, lo and behold, we have public organisations sending out terrible signals about how dire these cuts are going to be,” said the West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine MSP.

A spokeswoman for Cosla said the organisation would have to look at shared services to protect vital services and jobs.

A Scottish Government spokesman said:

“Once we know the outcome of October’s UK comprehensive spending review we will set a budget focused on protecting frontline services and economic recovery.”