No-one in government, apart from the Tories and a few Liberal Democrats, likes budget cuts. Nor, when local authorities, central government departments and quangos have been used to year-on-year real terms increases in funding for many years, is anyone in officialdom keen on the taps being turned down to a trickle.
Yet the cuts and fee or fare increases agreed yesterday by Shetland Islands Council as a result of the UK government’s desire to scythe through public spending, apparently without much heed of the consequences, need to be viewed in context. To take just two random examples, elsewhere in Scotland Aberdeen City Council is to make 600 staff redundant and Glasgow City Council intends to reduce its education budget by £35 million (Shetland’s entire education budget is not much more than this). Without the cushion of the oil reserves, the SIC would have had no choice but to impose proportionately the same level of cuts. That, as chief executive Alastair Buchan and head of finance Graham Johnston recognised in their report to councillors, would have been disastrous for the local economy.
Few in the town hall yesterday were glad to approve the budget. In local government the desire (if not always the ability) to improve things in the community is always strong. But in the circumstances councillors were faced with the choice of behaving recklessly or responsibly. In light of the Scottish government’s desire to freeze council tax and the Audit Commission’s close scrutiny, they chose the least worst option.
Of course, that does not mean the cuts will be popular, far from it. As elections loom it is, however, worth remembering that the cuts here in Shetland as in other parts of the country are a direct result of a political decision by the coalition government to make the public sector pay for a financial crisis that had its origins in the connivance of the previous government with greedy bankers.