Parker admits Swinney cuts will force ‘changes’ in council service

John Swinney opening new training programme at McSence, Mayfield
John Swinney opening new training programme at McSence, Mayfield

SCOTTISH Borders Council leader David Parker admits there will have to be “changes in service” as a result of last week’s spending review by Scottish finance minister John Swinney, writes Andrew Keddie.

But Mr Parker gave a pledge to “continue to prioritise frontline services” despite no increase in real terms in 2012/13 in the Holyrood block grant which funds about 80 per cent of revenue spending by the Newtown-based local authority.

He confirmed that, in line with Mr Swinney’s commitment to provide funding for council tax to be frozen for a fourth successive year, the current level would be maintained next year.

However, Mr Swinney also announced a morale-sapping freeze on public sector pay and increased pension contributions from NHS, teaching and emergency services staff.

SBC has a three-year local deal with its 5,000 staff to halt incremental pay increases, normally awarded when staff move upwards through the ranks.

“The spending review is certainly the most challenging settlement local government in Scotland has faced for some time,” Mr Parker told TheSouthern, acknowledging a real-terms reduction in the grant the council will receive from Holyrood.

“However, there is access to partnership funding and SBC, because of its prudent financial management, is very well placed to deal with the challenges.

“As a council, we are preparing our budget options for 2012/13. We are confident we will deliver a balanced budget and, although there will have to be changes in services, we are very hopeful we will be able to avoid some of the more difficult decisions other councils are making with regards to cuts to service.

“We will freeze council tax again in 2012/13 and we will continue to prioritise frontline services in our region.

“On balance, although it reduces our spending options, I think it is the right approach [to freeze council tax] with so many Borderers struggling with higher utility bills and reduced income in real terms,” he said.

Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire Tory MSP John Lamont was less enthusiastic about Mr Swinney’s spending programme.

“The SNP government is still trying to blame all Scotland’s economic woes on the coalition government at Westminster,” said Mr Lamont.

“Rather than playing to the gallery and using every opportunity to pick a fight with London, the SNP government needs to concentrate on getting the basics right.

“Had the SNP listened to our proposals such as cutting absenteeism, reforming Scottish Water and ending free prescriptions for the wealthy, they would have been in a better position to protect local services.”

Selkirk Community Council chairman Gordon Edgar, who will stand as an independent in next May’s SBC elections, says the spending review announcement would not ease the precarious state of the region’s economy.

“It’s all very well to assert that major infrastructure projects will stimulate economic growth, but we are talking about long-term schemes like the second Forth Crossing and the dualling of the A9, which will not help the Borders,” he said.

Mr Edgar was commenting on the decision to switch £750million from revenue expenditure to major capital projects – a key plank of Mr Swinney’s programme for the next three years. Not only does Mr Edgar believe local authorities, not central government, should have more resources to fund local projects, he believes freezing council tax for yet another year will hasten the demise of small businesses.

“Raising council tax by an average of 50p a week could give SBC the latitude to stimulate the local economy and I abhor this short-sighted populism,” said Mr Edgar.

Mr Swinney admitted: “This spending review contains tough choices because of the cuts from Westminster that go too far, too fast. We have to restrict pay costs, reluctantly implement pension [contribution] increases on public service staff, maximise the income from asset sales and introduce a public health levy for large retailers to support our preventative spending.”

The measures won support from South of Scotland SNP MSP Paul Wheelhouse.

“With a council tax freeze continuing to deliver support for households in the Borders, we are seeing Scotland through the tough times imposed by the Tories and Lib Dems at Westminster while investing in jobs, infrastructure and real change to our public services,” said Mr Whitehouse.