Reading a council budget

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Guidance on how to access and make sense of a local authority budget.

Every year councils must publish audited accounts to allow the public to examine how they both raise and spend their money. The annual accounts are usually published alongside the annual report.

These documents can be obtained either direct from each council or from their websites. If you are looking online for the annual accounts, try checking any section on council finance if it is not immediately obvious where the accounts are published. Council meeting agendas and minutes will also include financial reports, these are usually the most “user friendly” starting points for looking at council financial documents.

There are two key elements within the annual accounts:- the capital and revenue budgets. In general, the capital budget deals with finances for the construction of new assets (such as new buildings etc) while the revenue budget is mainly for day to day costs of providing services (eg staff wages etc).

As well as publishing the annual accounts of previous years, councils often publish budgets for future years, providing information on council spending priorities for the year(s) ahead. Branches can find future planned totals for all councils until 2014-16 on the government website:

This is another useful source of information relating to how much of their income councils intend to spend and whether or not their reserves remain intact. The Accounts Commission advises councils that they should hold 2% of reserves although there is no specific accounting rule that this should be the case.

However, while most of a council’s budget is committed to providing existing services, examining the accounts and budgets may highlight potential sources of funding which could be used to address cuts in other areas, or any short term, one-off spending such as funding equal pay.
Of immediate value in a cuts campaign is the paper on the budget that goes to the council budget setting meeting. This should of course have been the subject of prior consultation with the trade unions, but practice varies between councils. That paper should identify not only the Scottish Government financial allocation but also any anticipated fall in income (charges, land sales etc.)

It should also identify unavoidable commitments (exceptional cost increases, employer pension contributions, new statutory requirements, equal pay etc.) that in effect raise the base line budget before other priorities are considered.

In some councils that paper may only cover the high level figures (broad departmental allocations) and branches may need to ask for more detail on how each department plans to make cuts. That is where the detailed impact on members is likely to be found.
Each council presents its accounts in a different way. While some may have the levels of reserves indicated in a review of their finance at the beginning of their accounts, you may need to examine the whole document to find the level of reserves held. The main sections to check for this information are the Consolidated Revenue Account and the Statement of Movement in Reserves.

Even if there is a significant level of reserves, it is not simply an indication that a council has extra spending power available. Often such reserves are held back for a specific or earmarked issue and thus could not be easily realised for any other item. Councils could also use some capital receipts as a one off source of revenue to fund additional spending, so it is worth checking the capital budget for any potential under-spends.

All local authorities must produce a set of Single Outcome Agreements (SOA); this is where they set out what they agree to do in their local area to meet the Scottish Government’s National Outcomes. They are a really useful reference point as they show what the authority is committed to achieve in return for its funding. Budget decisions should relate to these priorities. Cuts in areas outlined in the agreements can then be highlighted in communications with councillors. The SOA should be on your authority’s website and are collated by the Scottish Government.

Branches should therefore look carefully at the last published accounts and the draft budgets for the coming year – in particular the balances and how they are allocated, income levels, under-spends and the expenditure options being considered by the council.

Page updated: 23 April 2015