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Opinion

Paul McNamee: Get radical – bold thinking can solve budget crises

Rather than looking at what has gone before look at what is needed in future

It was a significant turnaround. Last week we reported on the huge cuts to local authority music tuition for children across Britain. We looked at how short-term and damaging the cuts were – how they were excluding all but children of the wealthy from an opportunity to learn and enjoy.

We looked at how this had a demonstrable knock-on effect in so many other aspects of learning and into the rest of their lives. There really was no excuse.

We focused some of our attention on Midlothian Council, in Scotland, who were planning on completely axing all music tuition in secondary school, except for children taking their National 5s (the equivalent of GCSEs).

Such was the outcry at the news that a matter of days ago the council relented and said they were no longer going to implement the cuts.

We applaud this. It is a fine example of a local authority listening to those they are there to serve and acting in their interests.

A problem remains. Due to the tightening of budgets, something else somewhere is going to pay for this.

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Last November Cosla, the council umbrella body for Scotland, warned that there were no options left for savings at a local level.

The pressures on their members are crippling. They’re looking everywhere for extra income. Edinburgh City Council are planning a tourist tax.

It’s a similar picture across the rest of Britain. Almost every local authority in England is set to raise council tax in the coming months.

So rather than insist on an overhaul of funding mechanisms, it’s time to look at what is available

Years of centrally imposed, politically motivated council tax freezes, north and south of the border, are now hammering communities across Britain.

There is a wider question about the fairness of council tax as a revenue raiser. But politically, that’s the third rail. Touch it, you die. Look at the poll tax proposals.

So rather than insist on an overhaul of funding mechanisms, it’s time to look at what is available. And overhaul the provision of that.

Speak to anybody familiar with local authority funding (stay with me) and they talk of silos. Individual departments make a play for budgets for their areas, essentially competing against colleagues in other departments. And those budgets are related to the previous year, regardless of priority or need.

Surely this is the wrong way around.

Start again. Rather than looking at what has gone before look at what is needed in future. What are the local priorities?

Clearly, different authorities are going to have different needs depending on the demographic of their constituents, or the geography of where they are.

Dive deep and come up with something new.

Some authorities are close to going broke. It’s not good enough to simply follow the structures of before. Or to reactively tinker rather than plan ahead.

And while they’re at it, look to locals who are spinning gold from flax – the small operators, the social enterprises, the one-man bands, the community groups, those who see new thinking is needed and stand up.

It’s time for a radical change.

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