Acting Midlothian Council leader angered at local MSPs’ funding claims

A council chief has accused Midlothian’s MSPs of spreading “misinformation” after they claimed the local authority received “inflation busting” funding from the Scottish Government this year.

Wednesday, 15th May 2019, 7:50 am
Midlothian House, Buccleuch St Dalkeith

Councillor Jim Muirhead, acting leader of Midlothian Council, said the county’s two SNP MSPs were too busy “toeing the party line” when they should be representing their local residents.

His comments came after fellow Labour councillor John Hackett asked about public statements he said had been made by MSPs Christine Grahame and Colin Beattie, and Midlothian SNP Group, which said the local authority had received an increase of nearly six per cent in funding.

Mr Muirhead told the council chambers: “In a recent leaflet circulated the SNP have claimed that the Scottish Government have provided Midlothian with an extra £10.35 million in funding. To come to that figure they have actually included the £2.3m this council received in council tax, therefore not from the Scottish Government, and indeed the leaflet criticised this council for collecting council tax at the level that it did.

“So quite blatant misinformation being circulated by the SNP group and by our MSPs in correspondence.”

Mr Muirhead went on to say the SNP leaflets had described their funding as good for the county and inflation busting. He said: “Far from being inflation busting the settlement actually represents a clear cut in our core funding of £1.48m. Our two Midlothian MSPs appear to be more intent on toeing the party line than standing up for the people of Midlothian who they are elected to represent.”

His comments were dismissed by Ms Grahame and Mr Beattie.

Midlothian Council had to make cuts and savings to meet a £9.7m shortfall in its budget this year. It has said the Scottish Government grant, which makes up the bulk of its funding alongside council tax, was actually reduced by £1.5m once additional responsibilities handed to local authorities as part of the funding were taken into account.

Mr Muirhead said he and council leader Councillor Derek Milligan, who is currently on leave, had both provided information about the council’s financial situation to its MSPs before the Scottish Government voted on its budget, and sat down with Mr Beattie. However Mr Muirhead said Ms Grahame had “declined to attend” the meeting.

In response Ms Grahame said she has repeatedly asked Mr Miliigan and Mr Muirhead if they had taken their case to COSLA (the body overseeing local authorities in Scotland) who she said set the model which decided how much each council received.

Responding to Mr Muirhead’s comments, Ms Grahame said: “Councillor Muirhead’s claims are full of bluster and avoid the questions I have now posed on four occasions with no answers.

“As COSLA agrees the funding settlement for all 32 council areas and then allocates on an agreed formula to individual councils including Midlothian, it is up to council leaders to argue their corner for their settlement. For the fourth time I have asked how many COSLA meetings were attended by Midlothian Council leadership, the latest time on 15th April to which I have yet to receive a response, not even an acknowledgement.

“Could it be that these Labour councillors didn’t bother challenge the Midlothian settlement at COSLA? I think their silence and distraction tactics speak volumes.”

Mr Beattie said: “I note from Cllr Muirhead’s comments the continued confusion in the minds of the ruling Labour group as to who actually distributes funding to Scotland’s councils. The councils collectively through their representative body COSLA have agreed a funding formula for the money provided by the Scottish Government for Local Government. Indeed it was the present leader of the Council who signed off on behalf of Midlothian Council back in 1999. So it was considered a fair division back then.

“If you look at past years distributions received by Midlothian and compare increments received from COSLA most recently, these have increased substantially until in 2019 they were allocated 5.98 per cent overall.

“To me that seems like the formula is probably working by gradually adjusting payments in favour of Midlothian. As far as I am aware Midlothian’s Labour administration has made no representations to Labour controlled COSLA to have the formula changed to better reflect Midlothian’s perceived needs. I’m not sure why.

“The leader of the council invited me to meet him to discuss Midlothian’s funding “crisis”. I listened for an hour to threats to close libraries, leisure centres, schools, and almost every other council service. At the end of the meeting I told Cllr Milligan that my priority was for the people who elected me and that regardless of party affiliations if he could give me the ammunition I would camp on the Cabinet Secretary for Finance’s door to get a solution if need be.

“A few weeks later I had still received nothing. I followed up with a gentle reminder. In response I received a lengthy diatribe which enclosed a copy of the Scottish Government’s budget with the comment that everything was contained within that. I will also repeat that my priority are my constituents.

“If I am armed with the information needed I will fight for more resources. I will even lobby COSLA on behalf of the council – which the Labour administration seem afraid to do for some reason. I cannot guarantee success but I will certainly try. However, at the moment I have nothing to fight with. Just assertions that the council has no money and needs bailed out.”