On Thursday, Scottish Borders Council’s ruling Tory/Independent coalition will announce its plans for the 2019/20 budget, but what can Borders expect from leader Shona Haslam’s third budget?
It will come as no surprise that Scottish Borders Council is expected to make further sweeping cuts to its frontline services, as the UK Government prepares to enter its 10th year of austerity, and year-on-year reductions in local government funding has left the local authority struggling to post a balanced budget for this financial year.
In fact, for its 2018/19 budget, the council outlined £16.4m of savings to be made across its services. This led to cutbacks across the council last year, particularly in grass cutting, waste refuse collection and road repairs, but of the savings achieved by the council during the current financial year £7.5m are just temporary savings.
In September, the council’s chief financial officer David Robertson warned councillors that those temporary savings will need to be made permanent in the 2019/20 budget.
However, in the midst of the doom and gloom Scottish Borders Council’s Tory-led administration may be able to stay their hand on certain cutbacks thanks to an unlikely ally in the Scottish Parliament, as the local authority could be in in for a larger settlement grant than first expected following a deal between rival parties in Holyrood.
A new funding settlement for local authorities has been agreed in the Scottish Parliament following a last-minute deal between the majority Scottish National Party and minority Greens.
The deal includes more core funding for councils and extra powers for them to levy local parking and tourist taxes.
Here’s five things to expect from Thursday’s budget announcement:
Council tax rise will stay at 3%
Thanks largely to an eight year Scottish council tax freeze, Borderers pay significantly less council tax than their English counterparts in Northumberland and Cumbria. In fact, on average, Borderers are forking out £508 less than their Northumbrian opposite numbers.
Since First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced the end of the freeze in 2016, Scottish Borders Council has taken full advantage of the ability to raise council tax by 3% each year, and this year is no different, as the council agreed to a 3% increase in December 2018.
However, the deal agreed by the SNP and Scottish Greens allows councils to raise tax by up to 4.78% for 2019/20.
Council leader Shona Haslam, who represents Tweeddale East, has been adamant that Scottish Borders Council will not take advantage of the increased limit, and will not raise an extra 1.78% on Borderers’ council tax, instead sticking to an increase of 3%.
Council will not introduce workplace parking levy
Scottish Conservatives in the Borders have been very vocal about their opposition to the Scottish Government plans to introduce a workplace parking levy, where employers will be charged an annual tax based on how many parking spaces they provide for their employees.
The aim is to persuade more commuters to use public transport in a bid to reduce pollution, but the charge could lead to employers passing the bill onto their employees.
Both councillor Haslam and Scottish Borders Council’s SNP opposition leader Stuart Bell, who both represent the rural ward of Tweeddale East, have signalled their opposition to the plans, so it is extremely unlikely this will feature in the council’s budget proposals.
Borderers who travel to Edinburgh for work could possibly be affected by the levy though, as Edinburgh City Council is considering implementing the charges.
A move to three-weekly bin collections
Rumours have been circulating amongst councillors that Scottish Borders Council’s waste refuse collection service will move to three-weekly bin collections, from the current once-a-fortnight collection
The local authority is currently reviewing its waste collection service, which is expected to feed into the new budget for 2019/20.
In fact, at a meeting of the council in October 2018, Selkirkshire councillor Gordon Edgar, the authority’s executive member for roads and infrastructure, refused to rule out the possibility when questioned by Hawick and Denholm councillor David Paterson.
The veteran Hawick councillor said: “If they go to a three-weekly collection it would cause some very serious problems for many of the people that we represent and I am sure it would increase the incidents of fly tipping.”
No tourism tax
Another controversial aspect of the SNP/Scottish Greens budget proposals is the introduction of a tourism tax on nightly accommodation.
Much like the workplace parking levy, local authorities have discretion over whether to implement it or not, and again Scottish Borders Tories have ruled out introducing it here.
Changes to grass cutting services
Grass cutting, or the lack of it, has been a constant thorn in the side of the council over the past year.
As an issue which caused a large furore, Scottish Borders Council could well announce further changes to the grass cutting regime, particularly around the maintenance of cemeteries.
Changing the frequency of grass cutting from a 10-day cycle to a 20-day cycle was widely criticised by communities, with residents reporting overgrown public spaces and ankle-high grass in the region’s cemeteries.
Many opposition councillors have called for a rethink on the council’s grass cutting policy, and due to the large number of complaints from Borders resident it is expected to be addressed in Thursday’s budget announcement.