Council tax must rise to create more investment in our communities

Falkirk Council will decide whether it will be raising the level of council tax at its budget setting meeting next week
Falkirk Council will decide whether it will be raising the level of council tax at its budget setting meeting next week

Next week may be his last budget but Craig Martin does not want to leave the authority he has led for the last seven years in dire straits.

The council leader is standing down at the local elections in May after 20 years in local politics but he has one last job to do – make sure Falkirk Council’s ship is righted, remains afloat and is able to sail into calmer, more financially secure waters in the years to come.

Councillor Martin met with The Falkirk Herald on Tuesday, just eight days before elected members are due to meet to decide on the budget for 2017/18.

He said: “We want to set a budget that is achievable. I want Falkirk to prosper and be a place people want to come to.”

That ambition has been helped by the deal the Scottish Green Party struck with the Scottish Government last week which means the country’s local councils will share in an additional £130 million in resource and £30 million in capital.

This agreement means Falkirk Council will gain an additional £3.8 million, cutting its budget gap for the coming year from £10 million to £6.4 million and reducing the overall budget gap for this year and last from £20.4 million to a more manageable £16.4 million.

Last year the council put proposals for cuts out to public consultation and there were fears at that time as many as 400 jobs could be axed.

Thankfully, this is now not the case.

Councillor Martin said: “The options we put out for consultation last October gave details of the kind of savings we thought we were going to have to make and that included a reduction in staff at that point.

“It’s not going to be as difficult as we thought it would be back in December. Some of the cuts we were going to have to make then are now not required and that’s good.

“Clearly things have changed and are not as bad as we thought they might be, but there are still difficult decisions to make – do we raise the council tax or not? If we do agree to raise it by three per cent – we cannot go any higher than that – then it will allow us to invest more money in communities than we could before.

“We have that option if we decide to take it. Councils which have set their budgets so far have increased council tax by three per cent.

“No decisions have been taken yet but I can tell you there will be no reductions in our workforce.”

The council’s financial team, including chief finance officer Bryan Smail, was still finalising the budget details as The Falkirk Herald went to press.

Falkirk currently has the second lowest council tax rate in mainland Scotland, with only residents in Dumfries and Galloway paying less. Residents will have to wait until Wednesday’s budget meeting to find out for sure, but signs seem to point to a three per cent rise.

At a meeting of the Member Budget Working Group last year there was cross party support for an increase of three per cent in council tax and legislation passed in November by the Scottish Government means properties in Bands E to H will be subject to a further increase.

If the three per cent hike in council tax is agreed, Band A properties would rise from £713.33 in 2016/17 to £734.67 in 2017/18, Band B from £832.22 to £857.11, Band C from £951.11 to £979.56, Band D £1070.00 to £1102.00, Band E £1307.78 to £1447.91, Band F £1545.56 to £1790.75, Band G £1783.33 to £2158.08 and Band H £2140.00 to £2699.90.

Councillor Martin said: “We voted at a meeting in December for a three per cent increase in council tax, but we have to have that verified next week. With this reduction in the funding gap we now have, members may now think a council tax rise may not be necessary.

“We have strategic objectives to meet, including improving mental health wellbeing, minimising substance abuse and reducing numbers of children in poverty, and the only way we can do that is to have the money to invest in our communities.

“If we did decide to increase the council tax, the £1.7 million we would raise would go directly back into communities one way or another.”

Similar budget gaps are expected for the next three or four years, something which fills Councillor Martin with concern for the future.

He said: “My plea to the MSPs and the Scottish Government is let’s stop this austerity, stop the cuts – these continual cuts that have been coming to local government – and let’s look at investing in our local communities because that’s where the jobs will come.

“The Scottish Government needs to look at longer term budgets and the way in which it funds local government. My strategy has been to work hard to come within out budget every year so that the money in our reserves can cushion the blow for next year.

“Since 2010 we have been able to continue to keep services going when some councils have stopped them. We have been very prudent.”

Councillor Martin said the council would be meeting with Falkirk Community Trust this week to discuss budget proposals the trust had put in place, including plans to cut its outdoor activities programme for communities and local schools, which costs £260,000 to run each year.

These cuts are a result of the council proposing to cut £1.2 million from the annual funding it gives to the trust when the authority was looking at a significantly bigger budget gap last year.