Services face the axe as Falkirk Council deals with £40 million budget cut

Falkirk Council faces tough decisions on how it spends its cash as budget cuts bite
Falkirk Council faces tough decisions on how it spends its cash as budget cuts bite

Sweeping council spending cuts will hit each and every one of us as town hall chiefs attempt to balance the books.

The stark warning comes as Falkirk Council faces a £40 million reduction in the cash it has to spend over the next three years.

23-04-2012. Picture Michael Gillen.  FALKIRK. Municipal Building. Craig Martin

23-04-2012. Picture Michael Gillen. FALKIRK. Municipal Building. Craig Martin

Some services may be axed, staff numbers reduced, and new charges introduced.

Councillors met on Wednesday to discuss a raft of money-saving proposals drawn up by the local authority’s officials.

However, all political parties admit that it is the most vulnerable who will be hit hardest by the cost-cutting exercise.

How do we get out of this crisis?

The political fallout over how much money councils have to spend next year rumbles on. But it is the impact the current cost-cutting exercise will have on the people in our communities which is causing most concern.

Young and old, unemployed and low-paid, the elderly and vulnerable will all be hit if swingeing budget cut proposals go ahead.

Having already seen its funding cut by over £70 million in the last seven years, Falkirk Council faces having to make reductions of a further £40 million in the next three years.

The council tax freeze in place since 2007 has closed that avenue for raising additional money and, in a bid to balance the books, accountants have had to look at ways of reducing spending.

Once again council service chiefs were given the task of looking at where they could trim the ‘fat’ from their departments in a bid to balance the books in 2015-16.

But Councillor Craig Martin, council leader, has previously pointed out that, after seven years of cuts, the local authority was already a lean operation.

Yesterday (Wednesday), at a special meeting, councillors discussed a report from chief executive Mary Pitcaithly and chief finance officer Bryan Smail outlining the “extremely challenging projected gaps”.

It also highlighted the fact the “robust and healthy reserves” had been depleted and were no longer being replenished by underspent cash. They have reached £7.1 million which councillors have previously agreed is the lowest they should be allowed to go.

However, additional pressures on the ‘rainy-day funds’ include the recent European Court judgement on holiday pay which will cost the council an extra £500,000 a year, as well as a “potentially very significant backpay liability”.

Taking all this on board, the raft of savings up for consideration included:

- Axing school breakfast clubs

- Cutting the primary school library service

- Charging for all school lets – and putting up the price

- Reducing how often council-owned buildings are cleaned

- Redesigning care home provision with closure of Oakbank in Polmont

- Restricting adult social care to those most in need

- Charging for special uplifts

- Closing one household waste site

- Charging for pest control

- Closing all public toilets

- Charging for Garden Aid.

The council has said that before any decision is taken it will consult with the public, talking to community councils, staff and trade unions.

However, the report stated: “The trade unions have made it very clear that they are not prepared to consider discussing changes to staff terms and conditions until they see evidence of the specific and difficult saving options the council is having to consider.”

Prior to yesterday’s meeting, Mr Martin said: “The list of proposed savings is just that – a list brought forward by council staff of the possible consequences of having to make the £40 million-worth of savings over the next three years required to arrive at a balanced budget caused by the shortfall in funding from the Scottish Government.

“While coping with massive funding cuts over the last seven years, Falkirk Council has not had any compulsory redundancies among its staff, it has not closed any buildings or facilities or withdrawn vital services.

“But the reality is there is no meat left on the bone: the further £40 million of cuts over the next three years are going to hurt and now vulnerable people will feel these cuts bite.”

Vulnerable hit the hardest

While the SNP opposition on Falkirk Council agreed the most vulnerable would be hit by budget cuts, they said the day of reckoning had now come for the administration.

They labelled the proposals as “the dismantling of the council’s social contract with the people”.

Cecil Meiklejohn, SNP group leader, argued that local authorities had been given a larger share of the funding pot since her party had taken control of Holyrood in 2007.

She said the current cash crisis in Falkirk was caused through “mismanagement” of the cash in the council’s coffers by the current administration.

Mrs Meiklejohn said: “Since the Tories came to power in 2007 the Scottish Government’s budget has

increased in cash terms by 6.4 per cent, although when inflation is taken into

account a real term cut. During the same period local government’s funding has increased by 8.9 per cent.

“During the period since the SNP came to power local government’s share of the Scottish budget has increased from 37.1 per cent to 37.5 per cent, demonstrating the SNP’s commitment to local government.

“With the council being given an additional sum equivalent to a rise in grant of twice the rate of inflation to freeze the council tax I am surprised at the scale of the mismanagement of the council’s resources and therefore the scale of the cuts they are now proposing.

“The challenge we lay down to the Labour/Tory coalition in Falkirk is to now tell us which of the cuts they are proposing to put out to consultation cross the line in the sand and so won’t ever be considered by them? “

“This is particularly relevant given the administration’s practice of seeking out the soft targets, namely the very young, elderly, infirm and disabled people.”

“Enforced cuts pierces me to the core”

Councillor Craig Martin said the extent of the cuts which might be introduced was unpalatable – but inevitable if the council was to carry out its legal duty of balancing its budget.

He said: “As a father who faces cuts to education, as a son who faces cuts to social care for the elderly and as a trade unionist who has fought alongside other railway workers to maintain services, the prospect of such enforced cuts pierces me to the very core.”

However, he hit out at SNP statements claiming that any cuts were a result of the ‘No’ vote in the Referendum, particularly references to the elderly being encouraged to back away from independence over fears for their pension.

Falkirk SNP’s website carries a story headlined “The price of a no vote begins to be paid”.

Councillor Cecil Meiklejohn, the Nationalists’ group leader, is quoted saying: “We warned during the Referendum campaign that a heavy price would be paid for a No vote and that warning has been borne out by the content of this report.

“What we are seeing between the UK Government’s welfare cuts and Falkirk Council’s targeting of the Westminster austerity programme is the the social destruction of the caring society with the replacement being the ethos that essential

services are only available if you can afford to pay for them.

“The irony is that the group being hit hardest is the group so shamefully targeted by Better Together during the Referendum campaign.”

But Mr Martin hit back: “The cuts caused by SNP underfunding have nothing to do with the choice of the Scottish people to vote to keep Scotland as part of the United Kingdom.

“It is a deliberate policy of underfunding local government in Scotland by the Scottish Government that has been seen since Thatcher’s government ‘rate-capped’ councils in the 1990s.

“The SNP in Falkirk and elsewhere are trying to link their government’s cuts to the No vote as part of their continued attempt to create division in Scotland, which rejected their attempt at independence.”

He added that trying to blame the elderly for the current situation was “nothing short of discrimination”.