Falkirk councillors plan how to survive on a budget

Financial constraints continue at Falkirk Council
Financial constraints continue at Falkirk Council

Times are tough for everyone. But when you have responsibility for spending £344.8 million of public money and providing services for almost 155,000 people you could be forgiven for having a sleepless night or two.

Local authorities need to educate our children, dispose of our rubbish, keep our streets lit and our roads maintained. They also provide affordable housing, care to enable the elderly and infirm to continue living in their own homes, maintain cemeteries and crematoriums to allow us to bury our dead, as well as providing a huge number of indoor and outdoor leisure facilities.

But these are only the tip of the iceberg: there is a host of services which they offer that some of us may rarely, if ever, access but are still required, including pest control, recycling centres, and licensing dozens of activities and individuals including tattooists, zoos, bars, dog breeding and the movement of pigs.

Add to that employing 7000 people and you begin to get an understanding what a huge responsibility it is.

The cost of providing all these services is enormous and, like every organisation, business and individual in the country, the council faces rising costs. Couple that with a freeze on council tax preventing them increasing what is coming in to the coffers to spend and council bosses admit that the future is looking far from rosy.

Councillor Craig Martin, Falkirk Council’s leader, makes no apologies for painting the gloomy picture, but tempered this by saying things were far from bleak.

He said: “Yes, there is going to be a real challenge ahead and as an administration we will have some difficult decisions to make. It looks as though our shortfall will be £10.9 million for 2014/15 but the two years after that are going to be even more challenging. We won’t know all the details until Finance Secretary John Swinney makes the announcement of the settlement shortly before Christmas.

“Around 60 per cent of our spending is on staff costs and 75 per cent of our total spend is on education and social work services. You can’t make all the savings in the services that are left.

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, we will have to look carefully at sharing the pain from cuts that we are forced to carry out, but we will also be looking at how we can make savings, as well as being more creative with how we do things.”

But with many services already cut to the bone finding areas where there is flesh to trim could test even the most astute accountant.

The deal signed with the Scottish Government means the council must deliver a seventh year of council tax freeze – a particular burden for Falkirk as it prided itself on having the second lowest rate in mainland Scotland, as well as maintaining the number of teachers in its schools.

However, chief executive Mary Pitcaithly highlighted this was one area where the council’s spend to save policy had begun to achieve results by allowing senior and more expensive teachers to leave.

She said: “At the start of the session we had 300 more primary one pupils turn up than envisaged. But despite us needing to employ more staff, our teaching budget didn’t rise.”

Mr Martin added: “We are looking at how we can make additional savings in the next few months before announcing our budget in February. But one thing is sure, looking ahead, in three years time this will be a very different council.”