Scottish Borders Council’s budget plan passed by 21 votes to 11

Borderers are in for a 4.84% hike in their annual council tax bill after councillors voted in favour of going for the biggest increase allowed yesterday.

By Kathryn Wylie
Thursday, 27th February 2020, 11:40 am
Council leader Shona Haslam and executive member for finance Robin Tatler.
Council leader Shona Haslam and executive member for finance Robin Tatler.

Scottish Borders Council leader Shona Haslam told a full meeting of the local authority that was the only way it could break even on its 2020-21 budget while still delivering new schools and road improvements against a 25% cut in capital funding from the Scottish Government.

“I hate to set such a sad tone at the biggest council meeting of the year, but this is the reality in which we are setting our budget,” the Tweeddale East councillor said. “This is the hand that has been dealt to us by the Scottish Government, which is ignoring local government and ignoring the essential services we provide.

“How can we as a council continue to deliver more for less? How can we tighten our belts more when we are facing more and more cuts to our funding and more of our resources are ring-fenced for vanity projects by the government?”

The maximum allowed increase in council tax was something both the council’s Conservative-led administration and its Scottish National Party opposition group agreed on in their draft budget plans, debated by the council at its Newtown headquarters yesterday.

It will allow the council to transform the fire-hit Peebles High School site at a cost of £30m and build new secondaries in Galashiels and Hawick, costing £50m and £48m respectively, within the next six years, as well as building new primaries in Earlston and Eyemouth costing £9m and £15m.

Almost £500,000 is also set aside to finish off the building of the new Jedburgh campus.

Justifying the tax increase, Mrs Haslam said: “This is a budget where we have done our best in light of stringent cuts to our budget by the Scottish Government.

“This is a decision that I deeply regret, but I know that this has to be done. I am frustrated with a government that refuses to adequately resource councils even for services that they have mandated we must deliver.

“This is a budget that delivers for the residents of the Borders. It delivers on their priorities – more investment in our roads and more investment in our schools and our facilities for the elderly.

“It will deliver jobs and economic prosperity in the region. It will deliver on the promises that we have made.”

The rise in council tax will also help provide an extra £2m to spend on the region’s roads infrastructure, the issue that came out on top in an online consultation process to assess priorities garnering 953 responses.

Two 60-bed care homes – one in Hawick and the other in the central Borders, to be in operation by the end of 2023 – are also included in the budget at a cost of £18.5m.

The council’s executive member for finance, Tweeddale East member Robin Tatler, added that demographic challenges, an ageing population and the Peebles High School fire in November had all played a part in some of the “difficult decisions” made in this year’s budget.

“None of us became councillors simply to reduce funding or services, but over the years Scottish Government funding cuts have forced our hand,” he added.

Opposition councillors were also in favour of bringing in the maximum council tax increase, with the leader of the opposition, Tweeddale East councillor Stuart Bell, admitting he was “content that there are many similarities in the two budgets” before going on to outline differences in stance over issues such as climate change, school library staff cuts and a recent decision to let the region’s CCTV network fall into disrepair.

He also criticised how long ongoing issues such flower bed cuts, playpark closures and under-threat public toilets are taking to come before full council for debate.

“Despite uncertainties, it is irresponsible to set a council tax increase, which we must do, without telling Borderers what they will get for it,” he added. “We as councillors in this chamber should be supervising and scrutinising policy issues which affect all Borderers, but we have an executive leadership one or two of whom are either asleep or pursuing other interests.

“It’s the cart before the horse as we referred to last year.

“Budget decisions are being made now but the policy is just assumed, and it’s not good enough.

“I call on the administration to bring policy decision for timely debate in this chamber and to take more responsibility for the oversight and delivering of whichever budget is approved.”

Councillors voted 21 votes to 11 in favour of the administrations budget being passed, with one abstention.