It’s that time of the year, with council administrations racking their brains on how to cut the financial cloth available, ever smaller and thinner, to deliver essential services – and on the rack, with the opposition of the day crying theft and vandalism and inevitably suffering amnesia on their own practices and record.
For the coalition administration of Argyll and Bute Council, in which the SNP is the main group, this is their first budget since they came to power in the may 2012 local authority elections. It is also the first budget of their Lead Councillor for Finance, James Robb, who represents Helensburgh Central for the SNP.
Very close to home is the Depute Leader of the Opposition, Councillor Ellen Morton who representing Helensburgh and Lomond South for the Liberal Democrats.
Councillor Morton has issued a press release, taking the new administration – which replaced the last coalition administration for which she was Depute Leader – to task over ots budget allocations.
Councillor Robb has spring to the defence of his budget and his administration and sent us his responses to Councillor Morton’s attack.
Let’s first hear them speak for themselves in a dialogue-at-a-distance.
Councillor Ellen Morton, Depute Leader, for the Opposition
At the Budget meeting on 14th February, the SNP proposals will cut 670 jobs as well as slash the budgets for road repairs, care of the elderly, maintaining public toilets and cutting the grass in our towns and villages.
Councillor James Robb, Lead Councillor for Finance, for the Administration
The Coalition Administration recognised that the previous Administrations policy of just pushing hard decisions into the future was not acceptable or sustainable.
In October the Council decided to adopt a 7 year model based on information and projections from the Head of Strategic Finance [Ed: Bruce West]. The 7 year period covers the 5 years of this Administration plus the previous policy to take of account of next two years (so year 5 +2 years). This is similar to the Conservative Liberal Democrat approach at Westminster through the Office of Budget Responsibility.
We are committed to be open and transparent so all the details are published in full in the budget pack.
The financial outlook requires recurring savings to service budgets of £5.8m for each of the next 7 years. With such a large proportion of council outgoings on salaries, that inevitably means jobs losses (and the Head of Strategic Finance has given his opinion as to that extent (p434 – on attached budget paper). We are basing our budget on this model as we have greater confidence in that than anything concocted for political purpose by the opposition.
The elderly and the vulnerable are particularly targeted by the SNP cuts. Even more foolishly, not only do some cuts put older people at increased risk, they may actually cost money rather than save it.
For example, it is national and local policy to support older people in their own homes for as long as possible. Yet the SNP plans to cut the Council’s Homecare Budget by over a QUARTER OF A MILLION POUNDS EVERY YEAR. Even the SNP’s own papers describe this cut as ‘contrary to national policy and a false economy’.
How can any Councillor support such a cut? If our Homecare budgets are reduced, there will be increased delay in getting the correct package in place, increasing the risk of harm to an individual at home or of bed blocking by delaying the discharge of an elderly person from hospital. The risk of bed blocking, leaving old people stranded in hospital, is made worse by an additional cut of £600,000 a year from the budget for care home places.
Adult Care has been providing services in an increasingly efficient manner and has had recurring underspend of allocated budget.
This is an exercise in ‘right sizing’ the adult care budget. The focus is now on delivering the appropriate care and support package for each individual.
Adult Care is a demand led service and, from this corrected base budget, an allowance has been made for an additional £636k to maintain and improve care standards across the board, including maintaining the council’s excellent performance with regard to hospital discharges.
The former Council administration poured extra money into the Roads budgets, a decision welcomed across Argyll & Bute. The SNP proposes to remove HALF A MILLION POUNDS A YEAR from the Roads budget.
This means fewer repairs, less maintenance of verges and less drainage works.
There will be redundancies in the roads department, so we will wait even longer to get potholes filled, to get drains unblocked, to get footpaths repaired, etc.
This reduction in the maintenance budget will be worsened by a further £2.6M cut in the Capital budget for road reconstructions.
Argyll & Bute had until recently the worst roads in Scotland but budgets in the last 2 years had begun to reverse that. This SNP budget will send us back to the bottom again.
The Administration have actually protected the overall roads budget and the accelerated 3 year programme of investment in years 2012-2015 agreed in the 2012-13 budget.
The overall budget savings requirement each year is 2.9 %. The effective reduction in the 3 year roads budget 2012-15 is 0.6% each year.
Funding capital projects puts additional strain on the service budgets as loan charges reduce available revenue.
The capital allocations for 2015-16 are largely historic, block allocations that reflect the available capital for that year at this time but is subject to change in future budgets.
The third area this ‘slash and burn’ budget targets is Streetscene, the department responsible for park maintenance, litter, grass cutting, beach cleaning, public toilets, planting etc.
The SNP propose compulsory redundancies and other cuts in service to save £400,000 a year – so over 7 years we will be spending £2.5 MILLION LESS on these areas.
There will be public toilet closures, large areas of grass left uncut and an air of neglect will hang over our towns and villages. What we do not know is how many toilets will close or which areas of grass will no longer be cut.
The SNP proposals are likely to damage the local economy, ‘impact adversely upon tourism and business interests and the quality of life of communities’.
Why would any Councillor vote for this when they don’t even know the details of what services will be cut?
That is just nonsense. This one-off adjustment is permanent but is not an additional £400k each year.
This is the result of the Service Review from the previous administration which was agreed in the 2012-13 budget.
In difficult financial times it is not unreasonable for the council to review services it provides for free to the private sector.
We are considering allocating to Area Committees how the assigned Streetscene budget for each area should be allocated so local members can decide local priorities.
These are only some of the unacceptable SNP cuts – there are others, many of them hidden in the hundreds of pages of budget papers.
If the SNP persuade other councillors to put through these damaging proposals on February 14th, then Argyll and Bute residents will see a St Valentine’s day massacre of jobs and services.
The opposition have been given a detailed budget proposal 4 weeks in advance, as we tried to end confrontational politics in the council.
They have chosen not to engage and find a consensus.
Within all of these misguided assertions by the opposition there is not a single alternative proposal to achieve the required £5.8m of savings to those in the Administration budget, made public 3 weeks ahead of the council decision.
There is no doubt that the degree of savings demanded of local authorities is extremely demanding.
It is also common practice for opposing council factions to knock seven bells out of each other for political advantage and with erratic regard for the facts.
In these terms, Councillor Morton’s reference to a St Valentine’s Massacre, picking up on the date of the council meeting to agree the 2013-14 budget, is quick witted, fun and memorable.
The very high percentage of Argyll and Bute’s population who are elderly is a running and increasing difficulty for the Council’s budget.
It is rightly arguable that just because this is expensive cannot make it a target for cutting per se. The elderly have generally earned their right to care in the economic contributions they have made throughout their long working lives.
They have no alternative but to hope – and depend – on that care. Many can do nothing for themselves.
Because they are often without a voice, in some cases literally so; and because they are no longer economically active, they should not be regarded as expendable – as is now actually the case, through the widespread use of the quite horrifying ‘Liverpool Care Pathway’.
Our current ‘care’ of the elderly condemns our entire society. That has to change.
We are aware of problems, for example in Mull, with no care home facility on the island, the Bowman Centre as flats for the elderly; and stories of long married couples forced to separate to achieve entitlement to care.
Everyone is aware of many personally known cases across Argyll where family carers, often not young themselves, are left at risk of their own health with responsibilities for which they receive neither serious help nor respite.
We accept that there are different ways to apply budgets – but the area of sensitive care for the elderly is at a low baseline already and is an area of real concern at all levels.
A change for the better
The Administration, however, have made a very substantial change for the better in enabling a reasoned and informed engagement with budget proposals by publishing what are inevitably massive and closely detailed papers three weeks in advance of the budget meeting.
We annually highlighted the practice of the previous administration, now the opposition, of keeping their powder dry until the last minute, with councillors coming in to the chamber for the meeting to find inches thick budget documents waiting for them.
This was budget by smoke and mirrors, more music hall than politics, with then Council Leader, Dick Walsh, pulling detail out of thin air and flashing it past the ears of an increasingly weary and helpless opposition. All Councillors could do was vote blind on party lines. There could be no informed debate on the detail. This was a wholly manipulative practice and contemptuous both of fellow councillors and of democracy itself.
The current administration are to be congratulated for having got their work done in good time and for introducing the straightforwardness of making the detail of their proposals available to the opposition far enough in advance to allow genuine information and understanding.
We do not expect that this improvement will make a great deal of difference in practice in its first year’s outing. The trouble with abuse is that it takes a while for abuser and abused to learn new ways. In the long series of previous administrations led by the agglomeration of varieties allowed no time to do so before the meeting; and afterwards there was little point in doing other than checking out individual areas of interest or concern.
This time, it is possible that only the now Opposition Leader, Councillor Dick Walsh, will have paid serious attention to the current Administration’s budget detail, in the luxury of the three weeks they have allowed him.
But they’ve still got another week.
Councillor Morton’s grasp of time and responsibility is usefully insecure. The administration into which she chose to lead her Liberal Democrat group of councillors in the middle of the last set-piece battle on school closures, was directly responsible for the long neglect of Argyll’s roads; and the diversion of the roads budget into other areas. Her memory now, that they started to do some work on the roads in their last two years does not accord with our memory or with recorded fact.
In February 2011, just over one year before the Administration in which Councillor Morton was Depute Leader lost power,we published this article: A83 to Campbeltown a shocker, defeating enterprises vital to Kintyre. That detailed the quite horrifying state of that road at that stage – with long sections of bone-rattling silencer ripping and chassis wrecking potholes, crumbling margins and long gone road markings.
In December 2011, months away from the council elections, the SNP group forced a motion through the area committee for Mid Argyll, Kintyre and the Isles, demanding fairer spending on council roads. [Transport Scotland is responsible for motorways and trunk roads, local authorities for everything else.]
Speaking after that meeting Councillor John Semple said, ‘I have been pressing Councillor Macintyre [Duncan MacIntyre, the then councillor responsible for transport] for months on this issue and he has been evasive in addressing it. The comprehensive and objective presentation we had from officers today on prioritising roads for repair locally is in total contrast to the Transport Spokesperson’s preferred method of funding road repairs strategically. As a result priority needs are not being met for many roads in some parts of Argyll and Bute.
‘One only has to drive from Campbeltown to Oban to see the stark contrast, the worst sections of the A816 between Lochgilphead and Oban are significantly better, shorter and fewer than the worst sections of the A83 between Kennacraig and Campbeltown.’
Towards the end of its run in power, in its very last year, Councillor Walsh’s administration began to pay attention to the roads – because the electorate demanded it and there was an election coming up.
The current administration inherited a starved and very unable roads system at a time when budgets are being heavily cut back and they are having to do what they can. As with Scotland as a whole, suffering from similar neglect, it cannot be enough.
There has to be an ironic grin at Councillor Morton’s concern for the Streetscene, with the former administration of which she was a part, persisting in trying to force through a ruinous and architecturally illiterate plan to ‘transform’ Helensburgh’s gracious but also neglected Colquhoun Square.
Even more ironically, it was a sustained campaign led by Councillor Robb that gave local residents a proper voice and eventually saw the end of the brutalist plan and a commitment to more sensitive regeneration.
The budget meeting
14th February will see a unique occasion. The council will come together, with every chance having been given to every one of the elected members, without the familiar discriminatory laming of the opposition, to familiarise themselves with the detail of the budget proposals as thoroughly as they have cared to do.
There is no reason why we cannot look forward to a widely and fully informed debate on the issues.
Councillor Robb and the Administration have shown procedural integrity and courage in acting as they have done in making the full budget papers available to all, three weeks beforehand. Next Thursday will be interesting.