Council spending plans survive SNP ‘bile’

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BIDS by opposition councillors to make last-minute amendments to Scottish Borders Council’s spending plans for the next financial year were roundly defeated on Thursday when a revenue budget of £264million and capital spending provision of £29million in 2012/13 were overwhelmingly approved.

The administration’s refusal to countenance any significant changes to spending plans announced two weeks ago was cited by SNP councillor Willie Archibald as one reason for his attack, reported on page one, on the record of the ruling coalition.

“The moment that our finance spokesman, Councillor John Mitchell, got to his feet to propose our amendments, you could hear the sniggering and guffawing of some coalition members: a measure, in my view, of the utter contempt with which they view the opposition,” Mr Archibald told TheSouthern.

“This is in stark contrast to the way Scottish finance minister John Swinney dealt with the national budget earlier last week. Although the SNP has an overall majority at Holyrood, he was still prepared to discuss seriously and earnestly proposals from the opposition parties, and make appriopriate concessions.”

As we revealed last week, Mr Mitchell and the SNP group wanted £1million taken out of SBC’s £6.9million reserve fund and transferred to capital to allow work on the £3.4million realignment of Dirtpot Corner, on the A72 near Cardrona to get under way next year.

This was a challenge to a capital programme under which £275,000 will be spent on slope stabilisation at the notorious accident blackspot in 2012-13 with the major project not due to start until 2017.

He also wanted £25,000 reinstated to allow the night scouting of street lights across the region and for unspecified sums to be paid to communities for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations.

The latter request was partly addressed by a move to allocate an extra £50,000 to the economic development department to help fund local events.

But Mr Mitchell’s main amendments fell by 23 votes to five.

SBC leader David Parker, noting that a real-terms funding shortfall of about £6million had been factored into the spending plans, said: “Next year there will be a gap of £2million in funding and, the year after that, it will be £9million. You can only spend reserves once, so you must spend them at the right time. It would be foolish to spend them now.”

Independent councillor and executive member Michael Cook, responding to the SNP move and Mr Archibald’s vociferous support of it, said: “The bile on display today has made it, for me, an utterly depressing morning … betraying a lack of seriousness and integrity to bring proposals to the table at this late stage.

“In reality, if we are going to be serious, you have to have these discussions [involving all councillors] early doors during the budget process. You don’t wait until budget day and then suddenly plonk those on the table.

“The SNP has conceded the budget is fundamentally right, but to start producing what can only be described as baubles at this late stage is not on. I am happy to hold out my hand to the SNP, as I would to anyone, if we are going to have serious discussions about issues.”

Suggested budget amendments by the Borders Party also bit the dust. Councillor Sandy Davidson called for more money to be devoted to the clothing allowance for needy schoolchildren and more funding for extra pre-exam support for secondary school students. His motion to use £100,000 from a projected underspend in the current education budget for these purposes was defeated by 24 votes to two.

His colleague Nicholas Watson fared little better in his bid to charge elected members £1.50 for each cup of coffee they consumed at Newtown with the £7,500 revenue going to voluntary sector befriending schemes to alleviate the loneliness of elderly people in the region. His motion fell by 22 votes to three.

After the budget was approved and Council Tax levels were pegged unchanged for a fifth successive year, Mr Parker told TheSouthern: “We are fortunate to have been able to deliver a programme that protects front-line services and continues to invest in schools, roads, children and economic development.

“We have not faced the difficult budget decisions of many other councils and that is due to the sound budget planning and preparation that takes place within SBC.”