Falkirk budget cuts: Councillors finalise options, but no change to school hours
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But as the council struggles with an unprecedented budget gap of £29 million, the options that are left on the table include cuts that could affect schools, bin collections and roads.
Last week, a leaked report from the council’s budget working group revealed that slicing two and a half hours off the school week was just one of many drastic cuts councillors were having to consider seriously as they approach March, when the final budget is set.
The confidential report revealed the change would save the council a total of £1,637,000 every year – but would also mean a loss of 47 full-time equivalent jobs.
New council papers – to be discussed next week at a meeting of Falkirk Council’s Executive – show the proposal will not be taken forward.
But they also show that options remaining on the table include charging people for collecting garden waste – a decision that would save £365,000 a year.
Councillors will also be asked to consider “revising special uplift arrangements” and reducing opening hours at the council’s recycling centres, Kinneil and Roughmute.
Several options could impact on schools such as cutting teacher supply budgets by £60,000; cutting home to school transport; and axing school crossing patrols.
Another option to change the pupil teacher ratio would save over £1 million a year.
Other charges are being considered are for parking at Polmont, Larbert and Falkirk High railway stations.
And some funding could be cut – including money for Falkirk Delivers’ taxi marshalling and Safe Base services and the charity Barnardo’s services.
The options revealed in the private papers include possible closures of local libraries and shutting council-owned sports facilities.
But there is no updated information on these scenarios – including the closure of Falkirk Town Hall – which are being dealt with separately by Falkirk Community Trust, before it transfers over into council control.
The report does, however, promise “a reasonable and robust” sum of £1 million will be part of the savings options to be implemented in the year ahead.
In December, Falkirk Council’s hopes for increased funding from the Scottish Government were dashed – despite the fact its costs have risen substantially.
Much of the funding it does receive is ring-fenced while rising energy bills alone will cost an extra £2 million, as will the cost of National Insurance hike for all council staff.
But there have been some recent brighter spots that will help plug the £29 million gap.
Following a plea by all 32 council leaders across Scotland for more cash, Cabinet Secretary Kate Forbes agreed to provide an extra £120 million nationally, which means Falkirk will get just under £3.5 million.
The council also agreed to make changes to its Loan Fund arrangements – as new legislation has allowed the council to restructuring payments, a saving of nearly £5 million a year.
There is also some funding that can be used from fiscal flexibilities that were put in place during the pandemic.
Many of the cuts will be behind the scenes across council departments and some cash will come from projects that aim to save money by modernising council systems.
These operational savings, which have already been agreed, will mean savings of around £3 million in the year ahead.
It is a complicated and rapidly changing picture and in addition to all of these, council leader Cecil Meiklejohn also says they will almost certainly have to use some reserves.
“I fully anticipate that there will be a significant use of reserves this year to try and mitigate the impact of savings and prevent job losses and everything that’s in the mix right now,” she said.
“If all of the savings were taken then we could balance our budget but there are savings in there that are never going to fly with any of the political groups and there will be a variety of views even within groups.”
She is concerned that leaked reports have created unnecessary worry.
“Officers were just doing their jobs. They were asked to leave no stone unturned and present us with enough options to allow elected members a choice – but there were things that were unrealistic.
“It’s created a sense that people aren’t being told the truth which is really unfortunate because that is not the cause – it was about not causing anxiety, particularly among our staff.”
She stressed that no decision will be made on any of the proposals until March 2 when a meeting of the full council sets the final budget.
As a minority administration, the SNP will need the support from at least one other party to get their budget through – something that is by no means guaranteed.
The opposition parties say that the Scottish Government is directly to blame for the shortfall in cash.
Conservative group leader James Kerr said: “It’s unbelievable that the cabinet secretary, Kate Forbes, can find £120 million from somewhere.
“It still means cuts to the council services, which have been ongoing for over a decade.
“The people of Falkirk should understand that the funding from the Scottish Government has decreased year after year for over a decade.
The leader of the Labour group, Councillor Robert Bissett said the depth and severity of the options being considered shows that “years of underfunding” has put the council at breaking point.
He said: “With this continual underfunding of local government we are witnessing the deliberate destruction of your local government services.”