Streets across Scotland 'getting dirtier'

Street cleaner Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The watchdog found streets were less clean in 20 council areas across Scotland

Streets in most council areas across Scotland are getting dirtier, according to the public spending watchdog.

The Accounts Commission said nearly every council in the country had cut the amount spent on street cleaning in recent years.

In many cases this has also led to a drop in cleanliness.

The figures are contained in the local government spending watchdog's wide-ranging annual review of Scotland's 32 councils.

The annual review sets out the financial challenges facing the authorities.

In its 2017 report, the Accounts Commission outlined a decline in real terms in Scottish government funding - the government gives a typical council around 60p of every pound in its budget.

At the same time, the overview said pressure on services continued to increase. It argued this was particularly true in social care and education which together account for more than 70% of council spending.

The report said councils overall have maintained or improved their performance in the face of these challenges. But public satisfaction is declining and complaints are increasing.

Staff cuts

Since 2010, councils have faced a 9.2% reduction in their revenue funding from the Scottish government.

The commission noted that many councils have cut staff numbers to save money but that many do not have actual workforce plans.

Since 2011, the number of people working for councils, expressed as a full-time equivalent, fell from 213,200 to 198,100.

A section on street cleansing highlighted one key area of council performance.

Between 2010 and 2015, all but four of Scotland's 32 councils cut the amount they spent on street cleaning.

The commission said the streets were less clean in 20 council areas.

The biggest drop in cleanliness cited by the commission was in Aberdeen - though a few councils, including Shetland, Angus and Moray, were able to reduce spending and improve cleanliness.

Image copyright Getty Images/BBC
Image caption The commission said councils needed to work together to improves services and reduce costs

Aberdeen City Council defended its service, telling the BBC: "Additional staff have been brought in to be part of a City Centre Masterplan Hit Squad which targets areas for painting, graffiti removal, cleaning and chewing gum removal.

"The street sweeping service has been working to the budgets allocated, and is currently being reshaped and redesigned to face the challenges ahead. Staff will continue to work to reach the standards set by the city council's communities, housing and infrastructure committee."

On local services more broadly, the Accounts Commission noted that some councils were able to find new ways to provide services more efficiently, but others had not.

It said: "There are wide variations between councils. Some have grasped the nettle in finding new ways to provide services more efficiently.

"Others have been slower off the mark. Councils have made savings by cutting jobs but half of them still don't have organisation-wide workforce plans.

"Councils must learn more from each other and collaborate better to improve services and reduce costs."

It also said councillors elected in May must have the necessary training and tools to do an increasingly complex job determining local priorities.

'Reduced resources'

Ronnie Hinds, deputy chair of the Accounts Commission, said: "New councillors will require time to settle in and develop skills to make strategic plans, consider options for service delivery and scrutinise how well this is happening in practice.

"But they have four years ahead of them, and they need to plan effectively for the longer term, work with their communities to decide key priorities and then make that plan happen.

"We hope our report is helpful to councillors and officers as they strive to maintain or improve services for the public with reduced resources."

Cosla, which represents most councils, said the commission was "100% right" that new councillors would face big challenges.

The organisation said the issue of street cleaning illustrated the challenges of prioritising services in the face of budget reductions.

'Fair criticism'

Cosla president David O'Neill said: "Despite challenging financial circumstances councils continue to prioritise spend in frontline services and the vast majority of productivity, output and outcome measures within councils have improved."

He added: "I think it is a fair criticism in relation to better involvement of communities and hopefully this is something that we can build on positively post the May local government elections.

"However, it is missing a crucial point to suggest that the responsibility for this lies solely with local government.

"To realise true efficiencies and have much greater public involvement we need to look more broadly with joined up longer term planning across the whole of the public sector because it is that which will make the real difference to both individuals and communities."

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