Falkirk Council services face cuts amid dismay at budget cash
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Councillors will meet on March 2 to set the budget for the year ahead and they had already braced themselves for difficult decisions to close a budget gap of £24 million.
But the news from Holyrood was even worse than expected.
The council’s chief finance officer, Bryan Smail, told members of the executive on Tuesday that they had assumed they would get a 1 per cent increase in grant – worth £3 million.
However, not only will they now have to do without that cash, the settlement has added another £1 million to the expected deficit.
Locally, the aggregate grant is £679 million – a cash increase of £63 million.
But this increase will be swallowed up by government priorities including the expansion of free school meals for primary pupils.
In practice, the money equates to a flat cash settlement and – crucially – the grant sum does not provide for pressures arising from pay, inflation, demographics or lost income due to the pandemic.
The council is also bracing itself for a massive increase in energy costs, which are expected to hit everyone.
Council leaders from every local authority in Scotland – including Falkirk’s Cecil Meiklejohn – were so dismayed at the settlement that they wrote to the finance minister Kate Forbes in December, pleading for more help.
They told her that after years of reducing budgets there is “now no room to make further savings, without a detriment to our communities”.
The council leaders were particularly dismayed to learn that the increase in employers’ contributions to NI will not be covered for local government staff, which on its own will add a further £2 million to the budget gap.
The letter to the finance minister has asked for this to be addressed urgently.
The Scottish Government says that the funding provided by Holyrood to all Scottish councils is actually a cash increase.
But much of it is ring-fenced, with cash allocated to projects such as additional teachers and support staff and investment in health and social care.
While the SNP council leader, Cecil Meiklejohn, agreed that the settlement was disappointing, she defended the Scottish Government, saying its funding from Westminster had significantly reduced.
She said the Scottish Government was having to deal with mitigating the impacts of Westminster austerity, such as the reduction in Universal Credit and the bedroom tax.
She said it was no time for “political posturing” and pledged to continue to seek ways to ease the pressure as she urged members to work together.
However, Conservative councillor Lynn Munro said she took issue with some of the figures, saying the UK government had provided Scotland with the largest settlement in 20 years and the Scottish Government had chosen not to share that.
Labour councillor Joan Coombes said: “The cumulative effect of years and years of being underfunded mean that the choices we are being asked to make on behalf of our communities are “Do you want that rock or do you want that hard place?”.