Council Leader Dick Walsh has, on the back of a massive majority of 27-9, secured the necessary support for his wish to take two full years to develop his financial strategy.
In the meantime, Argyll will see a ‘preserve and prepare’ budget for 2014-15 and 2015-16 – meaning that there will be minimal cuts of 1% per annum for two years, during which time Argyll folk will need to brace themselves for the very serious cuts which will follow. The 1% savings are to be achieved by efficiency savings that do not have policy implications.
The modest 1% cuts are to be applied to all budgets apart from PPP/NPDO [the methods of funding infrastructural products from private sources], landfill tax, loan charges, insurance, historic pensions costs and NDR payments.
Policy Leads and Heads of Service will review the base budget, inflation and cost and demand pressures with a report back on revised budgets for these as part of the December budget outlook.
The caveat is: ‘ If any savings proposals have policy implications they will be put to council in advance for consideration.’
This is in fact a bizarre development in which the decisions on where to make the 1% per annum cuts agreed for the next two years are effectively being passed to council officers to make.
Asked for his views on this move, former Council Leader Robb says: ‘Shifting that responsibility to officers with no scrutiny or approval by councillors is one of the strangest decisions ever taken.
‘It is not the kind of response Audit Scotland would expect to its concerns over the existing council leadership, governance and culture.
‘It is a complete abdication of our responsibilities as the elected representatives of the communities, families and staff that will be hurt by these cuts.’
So what is the Walsh stratagem?
You would think from the two year moratorium agreed on developing a budget strategy that Council Leader Walsh was a nervous novice at striking a budget and developing a financial strategy. Not.
He has more experience in dong this than the rest of the entire chamber since during his administrations, he has kept financial controls as his own prerogative.
Why so tentative now, then?
His strategy of relative jam today and heavy duty penance tomorrow, ironically, is only possible because the doomed SNP-led administration set a brave financial strategy to take hard decisions on budget cuts early; and take to calmer water later.
Whatever people say of Councillor Robb who, at the financial helm throughout the three short lived SNP administrations [and Dunoon will never forgive him for his (revoked) decision to close its Struan Ldge care home on the grounds of cost and underusage] – he did not lack political courage.
But now Councllor Walsh is to coast for two years while he supposedly takes so astonishingly long a period to make up his mind about what to do with the budget.
This is likely to be about gaining strategic advantage. How?
First – arms length execution of spending cuts means greater deniability for the Council Leader.
Then – and obviously – this moratorium gives him two years to court favour with the electorate, with modest spending cuts for which he is not even himself responsible. He does have considerable ground to make up with an electorate that had grow to distrust him.
Then comes the third political advantage from his strategy.
Two years of very modest cuts takes us to the start of the 2016-17 financial year which, should Scotland vote Yes to independence, would also be the start of Scotland flying solo.
Councillor Walsh’s strategy would see hard spending cuts bite into Argyll at that point.
Is he hoping that a new Scottish Government would be sufficiently horrified by the likely attribution of responsibility for this financial pain to a newly independent Scotland that it would bail him out – which would see his group of independents sail gleefully into the 2017 local authority elections, whether or not he decides to run again himself?
And is he also planning this timing to sabotage a potential independence after the fact?
One way or the other, Councillor Walsh does not need two years to get a budget strategy sorted. If he does, he ought not to be leading the council.
The SNP-led administration may have been managed, manipulated and mangled from without by its own party hierarchy and internally may have behaved badly on its own account, bequeathing Argyll the most chaotic period of local government it has experienced, with the arguable exception of the school wars of 2010-11.
However, it cannot be said, at its outset anyway, to have lacked courage in confronting earlier rather than later the spending reduction required of it by the Scottish Government.
Councillor Walsh’s 1% per annum cut adds up to around £1.9 million for each of the years in question – a total of £3.8 million. Of this, funding the redundancy payments in staffing losses are expected to account for £1.12 million.
The Chief Financial Officer’s report in February 2013 estimated that 73 FTE jobs or job opportunities [unfilled vacancies] will be lost in these cuts – and the actual number will be higher if part time posts are lost.There is no current provision for severance costs – which, at £1.12, will soak up almost 30% [29.47%] of the £3.8 savings made.