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KEZIA DUGDALE: Dundee SNP councillors can still save Big Noise Douglas funding

Dundee City councillors can still do the right thing by local children and save the Big Noise Douglas group's funding, so will they act?

group of youngsters with musical instruments seated around their grandmother.
Big Noise Douglas musicians Xander Dallas, 11, Oscar Dallas, 8, Amelia Bain, 10, Heidi Bain, 8, with their gran Rachel Dallas. Image: Mhairi Edwards/DC Thomson.

Earlier this week the Scottish Parliament passed its budget for the forthcoming year.

It determined how much we’ll spend on our NHS and other frontline public services. It will finance pay deals for teachers and nurses and many other public servants who have spent much of 2023 in industrial dispute. And it’s the money we spend building roads, hospitals and houses (although it’s never enough).

It’s possible you missed the process of determining how £48billion of our money  is distributed, amid the maelstrom of the SNP’s now very real leadership contest

But perhaps the more crucial conversations taking place this year are in town halls and council chambers, where each of Scotland’s 32 local authorities are getting to grips with the cuts they’ll have to make in order to make their budgets balance.

The writer Kezia Dugdale next to a quote: "The SNP in Dundee don’t have to make this cut. It’s not a choice between competing good things."

Dundee’s John Alexander deserves a degree of credit for being very frank with the citizens of the city about what that will entail.

He has made clear that there is a vast gap between what he has committed to spending and what is actually coming in to council coffers via council tax, other levies and charges, plus the money he gets from central government.

And given he shares a political party with the Scottish Finance Secretary Kate Forbes, it was almost brave of him to declare in December of last year that the budget settlement from the SNP in Edinburgh was “insufficient.”

Dundee City Council leader John Alexander
Council leader John Alexander. Image: DC Thomson.

I think most community groups, anti-poverty organisations, school and community leaders could think of some other more imaginative, if not colourful, words.

Big Noise Douglas among groups facing cuts

Mr Alexander has repeatedly told the public he needs to make £18million worth of savings. And he has explained all the tensions in his budget between competing good things.

Where I lose sympathy for his approach is the way in which it sets these good things against each other, presenting false choices as if the city can only have libraries or sport centres, domestic abuse services or foodbanks.

It cheapens the debate. And it also uses these organisations, full of people devoted to their communities, as human shields for the political choices which he and his administration are making.

group of youngsters playing violins.
The Big Noise Douglas children’s orchestra could lose its council funding. Image: Sistema Scotland

The starkest example of this is the approach to the longstanding promise Dundee City Council, under his leadership, made to Big Noise Douglas.

This is an anti-poverty project led by the charity Sistema Scotland and rooted in one of the city’s most deprived communities.

It is hugely popular and renowned for the work it does using music to support more than 500 children and young people in the city each week

All the academic evaluations of these programmes show that they unequivocally build resilience and confidence in the young people who take part in them.

Violinist Nicola Benedetti playing with youngsters in the Big Noise Douglas orchestra.
Nicola Benedetti is a supporter of Big Noise Douglas and performed with some of the children at Festival of Strings Dundee.

Research has shown children develop new skills which help them focus in class, work in teams and get on in school.

It’s the long hard slog stuff that is required to close the attainment gap. And it works.

Big Noise Douglas funding can be saved

Dundee City Council promised to fund this work to the tune of £600,000 this year.

Knowing finances were tough, Sistema Scotland offered to take just half of that to keep the doors open.

Unless something dramatically changes in the council chambers on Thursday, they won’t get a penny.

Opposition parties’ alternative budgets for the city include money for Sistema. They have demonstrated that the money can be found if the political will is there.

If just a couple of SNP councillors change their minds, then the future of this project could be secured.

The SNP in Dundee don’t have to make this cut to Big Noise Douglas.

It’s not a choice between competing good things.

And the price of letting these children down will be far higher than the price of a couple of councillors doing the right thing and changing their minds in these final hours before the budget.