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Inspiring. Rivetting. Focussed. Enabling.
Thirty minutes was all the Administration allowed for scrutiny of their budget. With its majority it might as well have been 30 seconds for there was never a doubt that the budget would be adopted unaltered whatever any opposition councillor said. However, it underlined how adverse this Administration is to proper scrutiny.
I took the view that having several alternative budgets was an absolute waste of officers’ time for, as the Council Leader acknowledged, large numbers of people have worked on the budget for the last six months.
I hoped that the collaborative approach of previous years would continue as the best way forward. The Council Leader refused all approaches to getting a consensual budget that could be supported unanimously.
Two things were obvious from this – it was going to be give-away election budget and it was going to be personal.
The established practice since I have been a councillor is for a reasonable adjournment in proceedings after the budget motion has been tabled, to allow for opposition scrutiny of any last minute changes.
The Administration departed from custom and practice and insisted that an instant amendment be tabled before any adjournment.
I had prepared a competent amendment to support my campaign for funding for the Helensburgh Leisure facility. In the event, that was incorporated into the amendment tabled by the Opposition Leader to ensure an adjournment for scrutiny. I was pleased that Administration councillors recanted on their previous untenable position that there was no funding available for this new facility for a decade.
It was difficult to oppose such largesse from the Administration. In an election year suggestions on prudence and longer term financial planning get short shrift.
There will be much publicity about the Council spending plans so I would bring attention to how this was all funded. The three sources that made this such an easy budget were:
- There was an extra £12.8m from the Scottish Government through Supporting People funding replacing funding previously given away by the Council Leader at COSLA. This was incorporated into the draft budget and accounts for the net revenue budget surplus of £4.454m.
- A reserve designed to offset rising payments in future years to existing schools and waste management PPP (Ed: a form of the notoriously expensive Public Private Partnership funding device) projects had accumulated £14.6m. The budget spent £12.5m of this and took ring-fencing off the rest. The best parallel to this action is that of companies in the 1980’s who spent accumulated pension reserves only to face financial difficulties or failures later as economic conditions changed.
- The sale of Council assets in Helensburgh, including the former Hermitage Academy site, the pier head site, Blairvadach House and other surplus properties and assets. In total these could conservatively realise around £20-£30m. There will be uproar in Helensburgh when it becomes apparent that the capital receipts from the sale of the town’s assets (some held in Common Good) are winging their way to Kilmory.
Overall, the budget was not prudent and saw a massive conversion of assets and revenue into capital spending.
It is important to recognise the ambition of the budget but also to realise the increased financial risks to the Council it brings.
I think it is generally recognised that this is a budget that will require significant modification post the election, despite the predictable protestations now.
Whoever forms the next Administration will face a difficult task to deliver all the election promises but it will require a more stable and sustainable solution than this short-term election fix.
James Robb, non-aligned opposition councillor