‘Crust of bread’ or fair settlement – dark days lie ahead for our council

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To paraphrase a veteran local councillor – there are dark days ahead for any household that has its income cut.

And if that household is as big as Falkirk Council then there could be a lot of disappointment on the way for a lot of people in 2017.

Certainly a happy New Year was the last thing on the mind of administration councillors as they looked at the Scottish Government’s local government settlement for 2017-18 on Monday.

Members learned stark predictions of a £20 million budget gap had indeed come to pass and provisions are now being put in place before next year’s February 22 budget-setting meeting to try to protect as many jobs and services as possible.

Options include the potential to raise council tax by up to three per cent to coin in £1.7 million, a reduction in the total workforce and changes to terms and conditions, a cut in external funding to local organisations and further use of council reserves.

Council leader Craig Martin said: “The recent local government settlement falls short of what could have been expected. In real terms, it marks a £10 million shortfall in our grant.

“We still have to find £20 million in savings and that will inevitably lead to changes to our services as well as a reduction or withdrawal in a number of areas.

“The SNP had a chance to really deliver last Thursday and it didn’t.”

The Scottish Government’s draft budget, which will be finalised in February, placed a priority on improving education, growing the economy and reforming public services. Thanks to the Scotland Act 2016, this was also the first budget which the Scottish Government had wider powers over income tax.

Set out in a letter from Scottish finance secretary Derek MacKay, Falkirk’s provisional revenue allocation is £261.5 million, an overall reduction in grant of £10 million which, taken on top of savings it already had to make, leaves the council with a £20 million budget gap.

This could mean the equivalent of 228 full-time posts potentially coming under the axe.

Councillor Gerry Goldie said: “This settlement is like throwing a starving man a crust of bread.”

Councillor Robert Spears pointed to the local authority workforce numbers having grown to 6089 with an annual wage of almost £229 million in order to carry out the functions of the administration.

Comparing the council to an ordinary household, he said: “When your income is cut, things must change and luxuries must go. Both Holyrood and Westminster persistently impose these cuts without having the courage to make the cuts themselves.

“Forget petty party politics – we are entering dark days. We need to realise this is about putting people before politics and communities before political parties.”

Councillor Martin put forward a motion suggesting the council write to the finance secretary not endorsing his settlement and expressing concerns about further cuts to the council.

Baillie Joan Paterson, depute council leader, said: “In this chamber there is a broad political consensus the absolute minimum net expenditure for this council should be £326 million. Derek MacKay thinks an acceptable provision of service would be a net expenditure of £320 million – that’s a further £6 million pound cut.”

Falkirk SNP group leader Cecil Meiklejohn responded: “Only the administration of Falkirk Council can take something positive like this and turn it into a negative. We have probably got the best possible outcome here considering the cuts in the Scottish grants from Westminster. It has been a fair and balanced budget that protects the vulnerable.

“I think the finance minister should be congratulated.”

She put forward an amendment stating the council should congratulate the finance secretary on the settlement, which was broadly in line with Falkirk Council’s expectations for the coming financial year.

Councillor Tom Coleman backed the amendment, stating he believed the council’s budget shortfall would probably shrink to between £17 million and £18 million once the numbers were crunched.

He said: “The Scottish Government is doing its best under the circumstances to help those less fortunate people. By all means express your displeasure to the finance secretary with your standard letter.

“It is of no more use than something from a Christmas cracker. By all means have a whinge, but at the end of the day it’s embarrassing having these letters going out.”

The amendment was defeated 18 votes to 12.

Councillor Dr Craig R. Martin said: “I can’t believe we are being asked by the SNP to congratulate the finance minister for cutting £10 million from our budget. They are forcing us to use the most regressive form of tax to raise money – they should be ashamed.”

Conservative Councillor Malcolm Nicol said: “There has been a large reduction in the money available to us. The SNP now has powers to raise income tax and has chosen not to do that so they are responsible for the cuts that will be coming in Falkirk.”

Councillor Dennis Goldie was concerned government funding of £120 million was going directly to Falkirk’s headteachers as a ring-fenced grant.

He said: “Education is our responsibility. The concern is the government may start taking away the functions of the council in the future, leading to a reduction in the number of councils in Scotland.”