Budget black hole gloom casts dark cloud over jobs and services

HUNDREDS of local council jobs will be lost over the coming five years as the result of a massive £27million cash shortage.

The revenue black hole has led to dire warnings of tough times ahead as a cost-cutting plan is prepared.

Scottish Borders Council is today looking at savings of £3.846m in the next financial year which begins in April. That will be followed in 2014/15 by projected savings of £6.844m.

And officials are telling councillors that when a five-year revenue budget is drawn up in February the shortfall will be at least £27.5million.

Council leader David Parker pledged frontline services such as education and social work would be preserved and the Council Tax remain frozen.

The pay freeze that has been in place for three years will be lifted with rises of 1 per cent for the next two years and 2 per cent for the next three. Lowest paid workers will be put on the living wage of £7.50 an hour.

Frontline social work services will get a £1.36m boost to cope with increases pressure on the service. But background staff numbers could fall by seven and travelling will be curtailed to cut costs.

And the uniformed SB warden service, brought in to help cope with anti-social behaviour , is expected to be scrapped. It has 12 full-time equivalent posts, four of which are currently vacant. These four posts won’t be filled and staff will be offered jobs elsewhere.

Councillor Parker told TheSouthern: “It is going to be a challenging five years. It will be tough and hundreds of jobs will be reduced over those years.”

The council workforce has been cut by around 200 to 5,500 over the past three years without the need for compulsory redundancy and Councillor Parker said that policy would continue, with savings being made by natural wastage and voluntary severance.

Chief financial officer David Robertson states in a budget briefing paper: “The council’s efforts to modernise its workforce to best respond to the challenges of providing modern, efficient, responsive public services will require increased flexibility in employment terms and conditions and working patterns, and a reduction in the number of staff employed.”

And to that end, £4.6m is being set aside for early retirement and for workers who elect to take voluntary redundancy.

Proposals approved today will go out for public consultation with five-year revenue and 10-year capital budgets being approved in February.

Councillor Parker told us: “We will be protecting teacher numbers and ensuring that the council tax remains frozen, so there will be tough choices in terms of some changes in service but many other services that the public appreciate will be protected and continue.”

The leader said that decisions taken at Newtown St Boswells were based on the actions of both Westminster and Holyrood.

He told us: “This[SBC budget plan] is due to the austerity cuts in public spending that are being pursued by governments. It is also the case that we face significant pressures because of the current economic recession and the need to look after more vulnerable children and frail elderly adults. The impact of welfare reform is also an issue that, coupled with the general economic climate, is a cause for concern. Our budget proposals for next year continue to focus on protecting frontline services, so we are not closing any schools or community centres, we are protecting the roads revenue budget and not reducing it. We are spending an additional £1.3m in social work and health to deal with a number of demand-led pressures and to improve services. But at the same time we do have to make tough choices about the services that we provide.

“We will be taking forward a number of ideas to deliver efficiencies across departments without their being an impact on services.”

Plans by Councillor Parker’s ruling administration includes an examination of pre-school provision which could see a nursery which provides a service for six youngsters in the morning and another six in the afternoon, modified to one session serving 12 youngsters. Councillor Parker believes the public will see little difference in the changes.

Officials will look at how to make savings on the £1.8m spent from the council’s social and health care purse providing nighttime sleeping and waking support – all users will have their needs assessed and technology could replace staff. The three sports and leisure trusts face having their council contribution reduced.

Various fees and charges will go up– including a doubling of the disability Blue Badge to £20 – with increases in school meals and music tuition.