Times have never been tougher for council officials and elected members as they try to find solutions to cutting costs with least impact on the community.
Last week, members of Falkirk Council heard the local authority needs to save £45 million over the next three years. This is on top of the £10 million it has cut from budgets annually since 2008.
Service chiefs have come up with a raft of proposals where money could be saved – everything from closing school breakfast clubs to reducing the gritting of roads in winter, cutting bus subsidies to shutting some One Stop Shops.
Now councillors need to look closely at all the suggestions and decide what options they might not want to choose but have to select if the books are to be balanced.
While council leader, Councillor Craig Martin, has said the choices are “unpalatable”, he admits that there is no alternative but to look at reducing both services and jobs – up to 700 posts could go over the next three years.
He said: “Costs continue to rise and funding to be reduced so we are going to find the budget gap growing.
“It’s a massive problem and a huge obstacle we have to overcome. However, it’s a situation that local authorities throughout the country find themselves in.”
In August, a report from public spending watchdogs told Falkirk Council to work together to improve the standard of service it delivers.
And it appears the message has been heeded as councillors from all political parties have agreed to get round the table to look at the cost-saving proposals and attempt to come up with a budget for 2016/17 and 2017/18.
In its report the Accounts Commission pulled no punches, noting: “The political management arrangements implemented in 2013 should have allowed the council to conduct its business effectively, but long-standing political differences and heightened political tensions led to difficult and unproductive working relations and some councillors did not participate in the arrangements.”
The commission also warned that small scale savings would not be effective in making the savings necessary nor would raiding the reserves. It stated: “The council needs to significantly reduce its spending, but its plans to provide services differently are not on a big enough scale to meet the major challenges it faces.”
Taking on board the watchdog’s advice, setting up the cross-party working group was agreed by members at last week’s council meeting.
The council leader said it would allow all sides to have input into what would inevitably be some difficult decision making.
Welcoming the move, Councillor Cecil Meiklejohn, SNP group leader, said: “We are happy to be involved at an early stage on this occasion. We will be looking at priorities and plan a budget which is sustainable.
“There will have to be cuts to services somewhere but what needs to be looked at is new ways of working and maximising the council’s income. This would hopefully increase the budget revenue stream and help mitigate the cuts that we are facing.”