Budget is ‘no bed of roses’ says Parker, as hard times continue

THERE will be a continued freeze on the Council Tax, a new secondary school for Kelso and transport interchange for Galashiels, as well as more cash for flood prevention, better broadband links and a new, near £1million, synthetic sports pitch for Selkirk.

And Scottish Borders Council’s draft budget for the next five years, unveiled this week, has put the emphasis firmly on protecting jobs, according to local authority leaders.

But it has also been designed to shave £27million off council spending over the next five years in the face of a predicted further slashing of public spending by Westminster chancellor George Osborne next month.

The draft budget is expected to be approved by the council next Thursday. It shows revenue budget at around £250million spend for each of next five years and £191million of capital spending over the next decade.

A package of savings measures designed to tackle a £3.8million funding gap for the coming financial year was announced at the end of 2012.

The draft budget also has provisions for the setting up of an arms-length company to run certain social work services similar to that already operated in Glasgow and a review of the schools estate, which could potentially see school closures or mergers.

And overshadowing it all is a confrontation with the unions over pay and conditions.

Although there is a pledge of no compulsory redundancies in place, there are proposals for new-start employees to be paid a single-point salary for their grade without annual increments or, in certain cases, without extra pay for weekend and evening working.

And similar changes to out-of-hours payments are being flagged up for the existing 5,000-strong workforce in an attempt to save millions more.

The issue of savings and efficiencies is one which cannot be dodged, according to council leader David Parker (Leaderdale & Melrose, Ind).

He said the plan to tackle terms and conditions was better than “taking out jobs” altogether.

“This is the least worst option,” he explained on Tuesday.

“None of us think losing staff is the right way to go.”

Speaking afterwards, Mr Parker said it was unavoidable there would be some budget issues that will cause concern and will be contentious.

“But we can’t exist every year on a diminishing and reducing budget in the current economic climate without having to take some difficult decisions,” he commented.

“This budget is not a bed of roses for everybody and undoubtedly there are going to be challenges for people this year and over the next five years.”

Needless to say, this all has union leaders hot under the collar and they were at council headquarters in Newtown St Boswells on Tuesday to voice opposition to changes to workers’ terms and conditions.

In a joint statement, they said the council was pushing ahead with what unions are calling a “two-tier pay structure”, despite the unions’ request that it be put on hold to enable further talks to take place.

And one union official told us that as soon as someone is employed by the council on a contract with the new terms and conditions, then a legal challenge for equal pay will be lodged.

Talks are expected to take place at a later date over the terms and conditions for staff currently in posts.

The official added: “From the trade unions’ point of view, it seems that all the council is interested in is attacking the workforce’s terms and conditions to make savings.”

But Mr Parker says the council views the changes as fair and necessary, given the significant financial challenge that the authority faces.

“It is necessary to make financial savings across all areas of the council’s activity and, given that 60 per cent of our costs are associated with employees, it was always going to be the case that savings would have to be made in this area to deal with the financial challenges that we face,” he told us.

“The recent changes for all new staff protect core staff pay and jobs, but they do modernise some of the terms and conditions that we currently have.

“For existing staff we are committed to detailed consultation and negotiation about changes to terms and conditions which we will take forward over the next 18 months.

“The council believes that getting flexibility on terms and conditions is a better approach than simply cutting jobs on a compulsory basis and it will benefit the whole of the Borders and our staff if we can work together on these issues in what is undoubtedly going to be remembered historically as the most challenging time that public spending has faced.”