Figures don’t add up, says Parker as Tories announce budget plans

COUNCIL leader David Parker has dismissed an alternative budget by the Conservatives, claiming its figures don’t add up.

The opposition group at Newtown unveiled their proposals ahead of today’s crunch meeting, which Mr Parker hopes will approve Scottish Borders Council’s £250million revenue budget for each of the next five years.

Among the Tories’ £11million saving suggestions is an end to SBC’s policy of no compulsory redundancies and cutting back on early retirement pay-offs.

The party says the additional cash should be invested into, among other projects, retaining community wardens at estimated cost of just over £1million, pumping almost £5million into the authority’s road maintenance allocation, and spending nearly £200,000 to stop an increase in the price of school meals.

But Mr Parker told TheSouthern: “Obviously we will debate matters on Thursday, but it is unlikely that the administration will take on board their proposals as they don’t stand up to the rigours of scrutiny.”

However, the Conservatives’ leader Michelle Ballantyne believes compulsory redundancies have to be considered, with the three-year pay freeze due to end this year.

She told TheSouthern: “I understand why the council do it in negotiations with unions, but there is a debate to be had as to whether we are protecting services or jobs.

“I don’t think a blanket no compulsory redundancy policy is the right way to deliver services.”

Tweeddale West councillor Nathaniel Buckingham added: “Pay freezes and no compulsory redundancies have worked up to this point. But the pay freeze is now to end and there is a £17million staffing increase to come.”

Mrs Ballantyne added that her party’s budget plans would protect frontline services, including the threatened warden team.

She said: “We don’t believe the wardens’ work should be absorbed into neighbourhood services or by the police, who are already fully stretched.”

The Conservative leader also believes further investment in the region’s weather-battered roads would be good news for the economy.

“Roads matter to everything in the Borders and without a well-maintained network, no-one is going to come and set up a business here if they are constantly having to repair vehicles,” said Mrs Ballantyne.

She added: “The council has spent £1million in five years in compensation to drivers whose cars have been damaged on our roads – it is ludicrous.”

And on the topic of school meals, she told us: “At a time when we are wanting our children to eat well, we are increasing the price of school meals and pushing them away.”

Councillor Buckingham criticised the administration’s proposed strategy for trimming £27million from its budget in the next five years.

He said: “They seem to be assuming that for the next five years the economy will suddenly get better, but we see no evidence of that.

“Our priority is services for council taxpayers in the Borders, which is clearly different from the administration’s priorities.”

The Tories’ budget plans also include saving £335,000 by ending the council’s SB Connect newspaper and turning Newtown into a paperless headquarters, as well as making a combined saving of £6.3million from central department job cuts and staff restructuring.

But Mr Parker said their ideas, from the year 2014/15 onwards, are naive. The Leaderdale and Melrose councillor maintained the use of early retirement and voluntary severance is cheaper and more flexible for SBC than compulsory job losses.

He added: “There are no golden handshakes and all the staff who leave, and the costs associated with them, are publically available to be scrutinised and there has to be a sound business case to agree for the staff member to be released.”

He added that the Conservatives’ figure of £6.3million for staff savings is unachievable.

“This could only happen if you were to lose a significant number of posts and if you do that, you have to compensate people for the loss of their employment,” he said.

“This leaves a significant hole in their budget as they can’t get remotely close to their projected £11million of savings. That means that the things that they want to do, they simply can’t afford, and therefore they can promise the earth, but as their figures demonstrate, they can’t actually pay for it.”