FOR the ninth and final time on Tuesday, Councillor Neil Calvert presented details of a budget which his ruling administration will push through at Newtown next Thursday.
The West Linton Conservative has been Scottish Borders Council’s executive member for finance since he was first elected in 2003.
The fact he will not seek another term on May 3 was evidently not a factor in Mr Calvert delivering a pointedly candid assessment of the adverse impact of the econonic downturn on our region.
“The budget is unfortunately not as ambitious as I would like it to be and I know my colleagues and I would love to invest much more in the Borders at this time,” said Mr Calvert.
That was a reference to restrained capital expenditure being passed down via Holyrood and Westminster, restricting SBC to borrowings of just £80million for key infrastructure projects over the next three years. In 2009/11, that budget topped £57million for a single year.
“We rely more and more on the Scottish Government to deliver projects according to its priorities, although on the plus side we are getting a railway,” said Mr Calvert.
If the revenue budget of £264million is not increasing, leaving SBC to find £7.2million to balance its books in 2012/13, then pressures on council services and many Borderers certainly are.
He said there was more financial pressure on business, increasing levels of youth unemployment, higher numbers of people claiming benefits, living longer and suffering from dementia. There was also more fuel poverty and more vulnerable children to be looked after.
“Although the larger employers in the textile sector appear to have healthy order books, you have to wonder what the future holds for young people coming out of school or university looking for work in the Borders,” said Mr Calvert.
He referred to the Welfare Reform Bill, currently stuttering its way towards the statute book at Westminster which, he claimed, would mean claimants in the Borders losing about £10million in benefits.
“This at a time when more people than ever rely on welfare,” he observed. “To retain people in the Borders we must work with the Scottish Government, registered social landlords and mortgage providers to ensure a supply of housing for first-time buyers. That is just one of the many challenges facing the new council.”
But he commended SBC’s new revenue spending budget. “It is good news we are able to sustain our principal services. While, we continue to struggle to cope with the funding we are allocated, our priority throughout the budget-setting process has been to look after the less fortunate members of our society, to educate our children and, as far as possible, look after our roads and infrastructure.
“It means slimming down our workforce and doing things in a more modern way, but I believe we have met our priorities.”
SBC leader David Parker praised Mr Calvert.
“Neil has worked tirelessly in this onerous role and leaves the council in a stronger and more robust financial position than he inherited,” said Mr Parker.
“We have an entirely overhauled revenue and capital budget process, almost every financial policy we have has been reviewed and strengthened, and our management of reserves and other council financial assets is far more robust and much healthier now than it was in 2003. I cannot thank him enough for the hard work he has done and the commitment he has demonstrated. He is one of the most respected financial executive members in Scotland and, as well as working hard here in the Borders, he has made a very significant contribution in national financial matters via the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. I will miss Neil greatly when he leaves and have spent recent months trying to persuade him to stay in local government. But an 80-mile round trip each day [between West Linton and Newtown] and the colossal workload are hard to sustain and I can fully understand why he has decided to step down at this election.”