Putting the elderly, vulnerable and children first is the priority of next year’s Falkirk Council budget.
As austerity begins to bite, councillors admit they had to make tough choices.
But when those difficult decisions finally had to be taken it came down to looking at what they were legally bound to deliver and what was discretionary.
Councillor Craig Martin, council leader, said: “It was a case of what were the things that we had to do for the communities of Falkirk and what were the nice things that we would want to do for them.
“There’s no getting away from the fact we’ve had some tough decisions and had to make some cuts that we would never want to do, but the cash isn’t there to maintain many of the services we currently offer.”
The council leader lays the blame squarely with the SNP Government’s council tax freeze. Introduced in 2007, it stops local authorities from increasing the level of cash it charges residents in return for a vast array of services, including schools, refuse uplift and road upkeep.
In return, councils are guaranteed a funding allocation and, although the SNP say this has increased over the years, Mr Martin said much of the additional money councils have been given is ringfenced – earmarked for specific spending such as free school meals for all children in the first three years of primary school.
He said: “It’s all very well to say that our allocation has been increased but we are tied to what we can do with it.
“However, we’re not alone. “Other councils up and down the country are having to make similar difficult decisions.
“The Scottish and UK Governments need to start looking at what is happening with austerity and how councils need to be protected, in the same way other parts of the public sector, such as the NHS, are.
“We would also ask that people start realising how serious the current situation is.”
The budget document being presented to the members of Falkirk Council next Wednesday carries the stark message that it is presented “against the backcloth of a continuing challenging economic climate and precarious public finances with it seems particular constraint destined for local government and this is expected to prevail over the medium term and quite possible beyond”.
Despite a 2.4 per cent increase in funding of £6.7 million, the report highlights that because it is for Government spending initiatives, “this large element of additional grant does not reflect resources that can be readily directed to meeting the underlying budget gap”.
Officers are forecasting that the projected gap will be £12.4 million next year, hence the need for £10 million of service savings.
The SNP opposition said its members had first sight of the proposed budget at 1 p.m. on Tuesday.
Yesterday, SNP group leader Councillor Cecil Meiklejohn said: “We have just received the papers and already they have raised more questions than answers. We are meeting with officials on a regular basis to come up with alternatives to some of the worst aspects of the current budget.”
Not popular... but necessary
Pupils could spend less time in the classroom as Falkirk Council attempts to balance its books.
The controversial move is being put forward by the Labour-led administration as part of its budget plans.
Councillors will also be asked to rubber-stamp a move to shed 430 jobs, an option the council has always prided itself on avoiding until now.
Other proposals will include shutting public toilets, closing an old folk’s home, collecting green bin household waste every four weeks and reducing the number of flower beds across the district.
Acknowledging many of the savings will be unpopular, Councillor Craig Martin, council leader, said: “We need to make savings of £46 million over the next three years, but that’s on top of £70 million that we’ve already been forced to cut in the last seven years.”
In a break from tradition, the administration will be proposing a two-year budget in a bid to spread the savings the local authority said it has to make.
While education budget will not be hit as hard as others – and there are no proposals to close schools – cuts were needed to balance the books.
By reducing the time pupils spend being taught by teachers from 25 to 22.5 hours, the council estimates it will save £1.91 million. However, the change is earmarked for 2016-17 and the council leader said if they can find the cash to avoid the move the proposal will be dropped.
He said: “We are facing many challenges in the months and years ahead, particularly due to our changing demographics: we’ve got an increasing number of children with most of our primary schools almost full, as well as a growing elderly population.
“These all put corresponding demands on our services. Our priority throughout the budget has always been to try to protect education and social work.
“We’ve had to make some tough choices and I’ll admit that those choices have given me many sleepless nights. I just hope people appreciate none of these proposed measures have been taken lightly and many of them we don’t want to have to bring in but there is no where else we can make savings.”
The SNP opposition said it was meeting with officers yesterday to discuss in more detail the proposed budget which Councillor Cecil Meiklejohn said “raised more questions than answers”.
Where council plans to make cuts
Service savings being proposed include:
Education – Reducing primary school teaching hours from 25 to 22.5 hours (£1.191 million savings over two years), review of community learning and development provision (£670,000), reduce central support staff (£400,000), reduce building cleaning (£365,000), increase cost of school meals by 20 per cent over three years (£200,000).
Social Work – reprofiling eligibility criteria for adult social care (£900,000), closure of Oakbank care home and reprovision of Summerford (£300,000), switching shopping service to provision from Royal Voluntary Service (£125,000), closure of Rowan short break service with places purchased elsewhere (£100,000), introduce charges for day care of older people at £5 per week (£29,000)
Development – changing green bin waste collection from two to three weekly (£291,00), changing green bin waste collection from three to four weekly (£400,000), reducing staff costs (£1 million), increase car parking charges by 30p (£82,000), reducing bus subsidies for unprofitable bus routes (£208,000).
Corporate and Neighbourhood – introduce charges for Garden Aid (£250,000), introduce charges for all special uplifts (£227,000), reducing litter picking (£200,000), reduce grass cutting (£315,000), savings from Sign Factory as a result of partnership with Haven (£470,000), increase bereavement services charges (£150,000), closure of public conveniences (£361,000), reduce number of flower beds and hanging baskets (£30,000), changing brown bin collection to four weekly (£200,000).
Central Support and Miscellaneous – staff reductions (£325,000), reduce council tax bad debt provision (£300,000), increase council tax collection rate (£100,000), centralise Registrars in one location (£100,000).