Budget: Council leader’s “regret” over hiked council tax

Scottish Borders Council's Newtown headquarters.Scottish Borders Council's Newtown headquarters.
Scottish Borders Council's Newtown headquarters.
Borders residents will need to find almost 5% extra to pay for their council tax this year.

While the ruling council administration and the opposition have come up with slightly different budget plans for 2020/21 and beyond, both have opted to boost council coffers by raising council tax by the maximum allowed amount – 4.84%.

This means that although the two budgets will be debated and voted on next Wednesday, February 26, it’s certain that Borderers will have to dig deep.

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It will mean the planned building of the new Galashiels and Hawick high schools will go ahead on the previously-agreed dates, and Peebles High School will be transformed as well, following the fire there in November.

Council leader Shona HaslamCouncil leader Shona Haslam
Council leader Shona Haslam

It also means extra cash will go towards roads maintenance, an issue Borderers see as the highest priority going from the feedback from the council’s online budget consultation.

Additionally, two new care homes are being built, one in Hawick and the other in the central Borders, which will provide 120 extra beds by the end of 2023.

Council leader Shona Haslam said: “The decision to raise council tax to the maximum level was a particularly difficult decision and one that I regret.

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“However, given the Scottish Government change in their promised funding model for new schools and the demographic pressures we are facing there was simply no choice.

Opposition leader Stuart Bell.Opposition leader Stuart Bell.
Opposition leader Stuart Bell.

“This level of council tax means that we essentially break even on our budget, and can still deliver the vital capital investment that this region needs.”

Opposition leader Stuart Bell said: “I think there will be a mixed reaction to the increase in council tax and it was certainly a very difficult decision for us to take.

“But we decided that we need to respond to the pressures and priorities that we are hearing from Borderers and that we are seeing in the benchmarking audits.

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“We need to put more provision into roads and we need to tackle the deteriorating state of a number of our high schools.

“I recognise that it will be difficult for some Borderers, however there are discount schemes, run by the council, that are available for those poorer families with less resources in order to support them in terms of the council tax.

“There are some who have said to me ‘how can we sort the roads if we are not putting enough into council tax?”.

On road repairs, Mrs Haslam said: “We are investing an extra “2.2million in our roads network, in addition to the money we are already spending.

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“That’s the number one priority that came from our communities. We have listened to people and we are delivering on it.”

However, the additional money won’t even come close to ensuring our roads are up to scratch.

Mrs Haslam said: “We are fighting against 10 years of the previous administration’s underfunding of our roads.

“It’s left a terrible legacy in our failing road system and we need to spend a lot more, but we don’t have it.

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“The Scottish Government have cut our budget by 3.8% from 2013. Their budget has increased by 2.6% in that timeframe.

“The gap is ever widening. We need more money from the Scottish Government to deliver these essential services.

“We are doing our best, but it’s not good enough.”

Mr Bell, leader of the SNP group of councillors at the council, denied this.

He said: “This year Scottish Borders Council is getting extra Scottish Government money for council services.

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“We are getting £6.3m more as general and special revenue funding, and through special funding we are getting more for capital.

“What is important is that we spend this effectively – but the track record of the current administration is poor.

“Take the community fund which has had a budget running at the level of £1.2m, and where over each of the past two years there has been an underspend of £0.7m.

“Our combined opposition budget proposes to take part of this underspend and use it to fund day-to-day council services.

“It is with a wry smile that I say we are pleased that the administration’s failure to control expenditure has now left a surplus we can use to fund our alternative budget.”