New figures have laid bare staffing reductions in neighbourhood services in the last five years leading to cuts in parks, leisure centres and libraries.
From overgrown green space to rusted swings, boarded-up community centres and swimming pools forced to close in peak hours, an investigation by The Ferret found that council-run services in some Scottish communities are being eroded to crisis point.
Campaigners blame a decade of austerity policies combined with Covid-19, Brexit and the cost of living crisis for putting greater pressure on council budgets, with neighbourhood services often most vulnerable to cuts.
Some councils are now warning that the Scottish Government settlement to local government in May, which will leave some major local authorities facing a shortfall of millions, means the future for these services looks “bleak”.
Reduced staff levels were particularly clear for leisure centre staff. More than two thirds of councils or leisure trusts – 15 out of 21 local authorities who provided data – had cut the number of leisure services staff over five years. Six had increased staff numbers.
Across Scotland, the staffing of leisure services reduced by 20 per cent. Fife, which cut leisure centre staff numbers by 13 per cent, has reduced opening hours for at least one swimming pool.
Glasgow lost almost 100 leisure services staff in the five year period. Closures include that of Yoker sports centre in November 2021. Stepford Sports Park in the city’s Easterhouse was taken over by community organisation Fare last May, when it did not reopen following the pandemic.
Renfrewshire council has cut casual staff by 36 per cent. Most councils only provided figures for council employees. But one source said the numbers of casual staff such as lifeguards and fitness instructors in some other local authority areas had been “decimated” post-pandemic.
Budgets were cut too. According to Scotland-wide Improvement Service data from April 2010-March 2021 there was a 25 per cent reduction in spending on leisure services by councils but an increase of 14 per cent in the number of people attending them.
The Ferret also asked councils about staff working in Scotland’s parks. More than half of local authorities – 16 out of 27 who provided figures – revealed that the number had fallen over five years. Across Scotland there was a reduction in staffing of 17 per cent.
Meanwhile council spending on parks and open spaces reduced in real terms by 41 per cent – from around £32 per person per year to £19. The reduction in the last year alone is 11 per cent in the last year alone.
Libraries also took a hit in many areas. Out of 19 local authorities who responded to a freedom of information request by The Ferret the majority – 12 councils – have reduced staff numbers in the last five years. East Ayrshire Council cut library staff by more than 40 per cent – down from 61 to 35.
Four local authorities – including Glasgow City Council and Orkney – increased library staffing levels over the five year period. Three, such as City of Edinburgh Council, kept staffing levels static.
But overall there has been a reduction in council spending on libraries of 29 per cent over ten years even though the number of people visiting libraries grew by 42 per cent.
The Fraser of Allander Institute claimed local government budgets would decline by seven per cent in real terms between 2022-23 and 2026-27. However the Scottish Government said it had provided a 6.3 per cent increase to local authorities this year – despite cuts to Scotland’s overall budget by the UK Government.
Edinburgh council said if the Scottish Government did not change its position library opening hours could be cut and increases to leisure centres charges brought in. The council was having to “fight for its services”, its deputy leader, Councillor Mandy Watt, said.
In St Andrew’s in Fife, the swimming pool at East Sands Leisure centre is now shut at lunchtime due to a reduction in staffing. One member of the community council said the outdoor gym only has one machine still working, public toilets shut at 5pm and the local library has stopped providing newspapers.
The community council member, who asked not to be named, said: “It feels like a catch-22. If you run the facilities down people are less likely to use them. And if there are less people using them they are more likely to be closed.
“It feels like we are going backwards rather than progressing.”
Between 2016 and 2018, 16 libraries were identified for closure as part of the changes to Fife’s library services aimed at saving £1.7m.
In Glasgow, Marie Ward, chief executive of the Cranhill Development Trust, said the north east neighbourhood had traditionally been over-looked and had little in the way of facilities or public transport to get to other parts of the city.
There is no swing park or planting in the local green space and concrete benches have replaced wooden ones due to vandalism. Cuts to garden maintenance for some elderly and disabled people were causing community division, she said.
The local community centre has not re-opened. But now the development trust is hoping to lease it from the council, and is considering a future buy-out.
“If we could get more services to Cranhill it would improve the lives of the people who live here, as well as their children and the generations to come,” Ward said. “It could be a close-knit community. It deserves to thrive.”
The council said Cranhill Park has been included in a recent plan “to designate 22 open spaces in Glasgow as local nature reserves, which will likely attract funding”.
Council garden maintenance ceased in 2019, they added and “was always over and above what we are expected to provide”.
Colin McGeoch, spokesperson for Glasgow Against Closures campaign, said over 20 community centres had not re-opened in the city since they closed during the pandemic, leaving communities feeling “forgotten and abandoned”.
Though there is a commitment by the council to address this, this will not cover the capital expenditure required to re-open premises.
McGoech said cuts to parks and leisure had “a direct impact to local communities, especially in the most deprived in Glasgow. “Cuts to staff means cuts to services,” he added.
In Edinburgh Rachel Green, director of the Ripple project – which provides local services in Restalrig, Lochend and Craigentinny – was also frustrated reductions in neighbourhood services.
“If we have better local governance local people would be able to have a say in what they needed in their area,” she said.
But she admitted that after many years of cuts compounded by the cost of living crisis many in the area were ground down.
“The problem is if you are worried about where your next meal is coming from, you’re not going to complain if your bin is not being collected,” she added. “It also feels like Covid has been a fantastic excuse in many places to say we can’t do that anymore.”
Angus Hardie, director of the Scottish Community Alliance, said that local communities felt irrelevant to council decisions. “The real tragedy is that unless it’s something like a swimming pool or a library building closure, it’s hard to envisage communities actively opposing these cuts as they once did,” he added.
“The process that leads to these cuts being made has become so remote and opaque over the years, that the local reaction is often little more than a shrug of the collective shoulder. The impact of the loss of a park keeper or librarian may not even be noticed until it’s too late.”
Powerless Over Local
“Local authorities have been cut to the bone and with the latest spending review the pain will get deeper over the next four years.”
Julie Proctor, chief executive of Greenspace Scotland, made a plea for “short-sighted” cuts to parks to be reversed.
“It doesn’t take much in terms of grass not being cut, dog fouling, litter and graffiti before a greenspace becomes a no-go area, somewhere that you don’t want to spend time or let your children play,” she added.
While friends of parks groups were stepping in to fill the gap left by council funding and staff cuts, she said more investment was urgently needed.
“Cuts to parks budgets and staff are ultimately a false economy,” she said. “There is a large and growing body of research which shows the positive impact that greenspace has on our quality of life and particularly on health and wellbeing.”
Unions also called for better protections for both local authority staff and services. In May they rejected a two per cent pay offer from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA).
COSLA has now agreed to a five per cent increase – but only if the Scottish Government increase its settlement.
Wendy Dunsmore, Unite industrial officer, said every council had experienced real cuts since the 2008 financial crash.
“There is no surplus in any of the services,” she added. “Now councils will need to consider cutting services which means less support in communities and less workers supporting those communities.
“Job losses brings great risk of an inferior service – to the worker, the council and therefore the communities who rely on the service.”
Tracey Dalling, Unison Scottish secretary, also warned that worse was to come due to the most recent local government settlement.
“Scottish government proposals to cut public services will have catastrophic consequences for communities across Scotland,” she said.
“It is foolish to tackle a cost-of-living crisis by undermining public services. Cuts will cause more unmet need, vital services will decline and the quality of everyone’s life will go down.”
Labour councillor and City of Edinburgh deputy leader Mandy Watt, agreed cuts to services could be necessary without additional Scottish Government funding: “It’s disappointing that there has already been a drop in staffing in some of Edinburgh’s neighbourhood services,” she said.
“The £63m cut in funding from the Scottish Government that’s projected for Edinburgh in the coming year makes future prospects bleak for many services.
“If the Scottish Government doesn’t change its position on funding for local councils, proposals will be made to cut funding for neighbourhood services.
“We’ve seen this in the past in Edinburgh, with proposals to cut library opening hours and increase the charges to leisure centres. We managed to avoid doing that in the past but these huge funding cuts mean we are having to fight to save our services again.”
A spokesperson for Glasgow City Council added: “Like every other sector of society, Covid affected our workforce and measures intended to limit the spread of the virus restricted how we could operate.
“However, our plan to support the recovery from the pandemic is beginning to deliver improvements to the city’s environment.”
A spokesperson for Glasgow Life said: “In common with a number of sport and leisure providers around the country, we are experiencing some difficulty in filling available positions, particularly for specialist workers with specific qualifications, such as swimming instructors and lifeguards.”
Fife Council did not respond to requests for comment.
A Scottish Government spokesperson said it was “the responsibility of individual councils to manage their own budgets and to allocate the total financial resources available to them on the basis of local needs and priorities”.“The overall local government funding package of almost £12.7 billion provides a cash increase of more than £1 billion or a real terms increase of £731.4 million,” the spokesperson added.
Are Councils Working? is an investigation by The Ferret, co-published with The Herald, exploring local issues, services, communities and more.
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Illustration by David Peter Kerr.