Councils hit out at NHS 'ringfencing'

COUNCIL chiefs are warning of "catastrophic consequences" for Scotland's elderly and vulnerable people if ministers press ahead with plans to spare the NHS of cuts at the expense of local authority budgets.

• Pat Watters: cuts would cost dear

In a major escalation of the row over forthcoming public sector cuts, town hall chiefs say they are being unfairly singled out for excessive budget reductions and could be forced to scale back, close down or start charging for much of their work if SNP ministers 'protect' the NHS.

Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon has issued a personal guarantee that no one employed in the NHS in Scotland will face compulsory redundancy in coming years and that protection will be offered to NHS budgets "as best we can".

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However, Finance Secretary John Swinney is now being warned by local authorities that such protection could force councils to close down some of their services with "disastrous" results for local communities.

In a briefing note written by the Confederation of Scottish Local Authorities (CoSLA) – whose convener is Councillor Pat Watters – local authorities concede they are vulnerable to cuts as ministers are afraid of being seen to be anti-NHS.

"In a battle for hearts and minds the NHS with its cancer, heart operations and delivering babies will always win out over the image of local government," the note says. "When people mention the NHS they think of life-and-limb services. They do not when local government is mentioned."

However, it goes on: "If we do not retain share (of the government pot] then you are looking at the vulnerable and the most needy suffering. Some services may no longer be provided or will have to be charged for. Councils are prepared to take their share of the public sector cuts facing Scotland. But an unequal share falling on local government would have catastrophic consequences."

Councils fear that if Sturgeon wins extra cash to meet her guarantees, elderly people would be forced to go into hospital rather than staying at home as care services were withdrawn.

They are also warning that if they tried to protect schools and social services in such a tight spending round, councils would have no money at all for all other services, such as birth registrations, cremations, planning and parks.

The concerns centre on budget plans being formed by Chancellor George Osborne, which will be unveiled in October. With Conservative ministers having pledged to increase funding in the NHS, SNP ministers have countered by promising to pass all the extra cash they receive from the UK Government as a result straight to health – funds known as the Barnett consequentials.

Local authority chiefs are planning for cuts over the next three years of 12 per cent. But if the extra funds given to the NHS as a result of England's award is at the top end of their predictions, they fear they will have to make cuts of up to 18 per cent.

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One senior local government source said: "If you listen to Nicola Sturgeon, she is saying she will protect health. If you listen to John Swinney he is saying he will pass on the Barnett consequentials.

"We believe that there is some tension in cabinet about that. Nicola wants health to be protected whatever the situation was. But that would be disastrous for us."

Watters warned that disproportionate cuts to council budgets would end up costing the NHS more in the long run.

He said: "If we get cut, then the cost of the NHS escalates. We can't provide a care package to keep an elderly person out of hospital, then that costs money to the health service. To be maintained in their home with home support costs money. If we don't have the money to do that, they end up in hospital."

Watters said that politics was getting in the way of the decisions as the cuts to services will be rolled out over the coming months at the same time as ministers prepare for the 2011 Holyrood elections.

He said: "I think the election is playing in a lot of people's minds."