WITH all the enthusiasm of someone who has lost a sixpence and found a penny, Scottish Borders Council has agreed to accept a £6.2million reduction in the cash it will receive during the next financial year from the Scottish Government.
Although that represents a 2.6 per cent cut in resources that support 80 per cent of its revenue spending, the council, at its final meeting of the year, judged the offer better than the alternative – the swingeing 6.4 per cent cut being faced by other non-protected public services in Scotland during 2011/12.
In return for accepting the deal, SBC will, like all 32 Scottish local authorities, freeze council tax which funds the 20 per cent balance of its budget for a fourth successive year.
Other explicit obligations on the council will be the preservation of police officer numbers by ensuring its current £10.25million contribution to Lothian and Borders Police Board is not cut by more than 2.6 per cent and guaranteeing funding for free personal and nursing care. The protection of teacher numbers, albeit with increased use of probationers, and the maintenance of high pupil/teacher ratios in P1 and 3 are also conditions of the deal.
The decision to instruct SBC leader David Parker to accept the arrangement by writing to finance minister John Swinney by the December 21 deadline was unanimously approved. Mr Parker was a member of a small team of council leaders representing the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (CoSLA) which negotiated the settlement and its quid pro quo conditions with Mr Swinney and his mandarins.
“When we stood here in June after Chancellor George Osborne’s emergency budget, the public sector landscape was very different and we, as a council, were looking at something much worse than a 2.6 per cent settlement reduction from Holyrood,” said Mr Parker.
And he went on: “Something more akin to the cuts of between nine and 17 per cent which English councils are now coping with was a possibility, but we have been able in Scotland to recognise the strong tradition of public services. I believe that, given the financial circumstances, this deal, though challenging to both sides, is absolutely sound and much better than we expected.”
He reminded councillors the reduced settlement, taken along with extra pressures on SBC services due to demographics and increased staffing costs as long-serving employees went on to higher pay grades, had left a total funding gap of £13.6million next year.
“To date we have announced proposals and spending changes to account for £11.2million, leaving £2.4million to find. However, I can say that Councillor Neil Calvert [executive member for finance] and his budget working group will come forward with proposals to bridge the gap in the new year. I believe there will be some good news and some of our worst fears will not come to fruition.”
Tory Mr Calvert told the meeting: “Accepting the settlement is a very easy decision ... if we don’t take it up, the budget working group will have to go back to the drawing board and bring forward some very unpalatable proposals.”
Liberal Democrat Jock Houston said: “This is an offer we cannot refuse, although I believe it may be designed to boost the SNP vote at the Holyrood elections in May.”
But the SNP’s Donald Moffat said the deal represented “a realistic approach to the mess the Con Dem government at Westminster inherited from Labour”. He added: “The Scottish Government has worked in close co-operation with CoSLA on this settlement which proves the effectiveness of partnership working.”
Councillor Michael Cook (Ind) said: “Everyone should know that, during the latter part of the talks, it was David Parker who took the bull by the horns to pull councils together in a united front to hammer out a successful conclusion.”
Mr Cook said the leader had, during the negotiations, also played a key role in mitigating cuts to the NHS in Scotland by having £70million allocated to the so-called Change Fund. Early indications were that NHS Borders would, as a result, receive next year up to £1.5million which would be managed by the new Community Health and Care Partnership to redesign social care and health service provision.
Turning to the six-strong SNP group of opposition councillors, Mr Cook said: “Some things the Scottish Government has done are reprehensible, but we must recognise the full part it has played in negotiating this settlement. In this case, they really are a bunch of good eggs.” He then went into his coat pocket, produced a pack of half-a-dozen free-range eggs and presented them to Mr Moffat.