Council slash millions from budget

Aberdeenshire Council's Woodhill House headquarters.
Aberdeenshire Council's Woodhill House headquarters.

Residents of Aberdeenshire are to face further austerity as the local authority voted to cut millions from its budget.

During a full council meeting at Woodhill House, Aberdeenshire Council’s headquarters, previously made recommendations for cuts were approved.

The council were ‘short-changed’ by the Scottish Government as they were ‘forced’ into accepting John Swinney’s settlement offer, according to Councillor Norman Smith, Aligned Independent leader.

He said: “There is no way we could actually raise money without paying a huge penalty.

“Our hands were tied by the settlement agreement.”

Cllr Smith added: “We are trying to do the best we can for the people of Aberdeenshire.”

Every .Scottish council has now accepted the Scottish government’s funding deal, but local government body Cosla claimed that in order to make the deal work councils would need to make cuts to services and axe jobs.

Cosla president, councillor David O’Neil, said: “All we are expecting for local government is the same level of respect that the Scottish government demand from Westminster in areas such as discussions on the Fiscal Framework, where they would rightly find it unacceptable if Westminster was to impose a deal with sanctions and cuts across the collective democratic view of the Scottish Cabinet.

“This is a settlement that has been both very badly handled and will also prove very bad for the most vulnerable in our communities and will ultimately result in thousands of job losses across the country.”

A large bone of contention with local authorities throughout Scotland was the continuation of the council tax freeze, which will now be in its ninth year.

Mid-Formartine Councillor Jim Gifford said the deal was a “terrible settlement for local government across Scotland”.

He added: “And of course, it is a take it or leave it package. If we don’t accept them we will be punished.”

The SNP government has defended its deal offered to councils.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Our offer has been accepted by all 32 local authorities, who have secured their share of a £10.3 billion funding package.

“Householders, workers, healthcare and schools will all benefit from the deal, which allows the opportunity to transform the provision of social care in Scotland with a £250 million investment in integrating health and social care services - helping to make our services fit for the challenges of the 21st century.

“We recognise the pressures on budgets across the whole of the public sector, and in households throughout Scotland, which is why it is important to maintain the Council Tax freeze - which has now saved the average Band D household around £1500 in total - while we consider ways to replace it, as well as reimbursing local authorities to ensure they can continue to provide essential services.”

Aberdeenshire Council’s revenue funding has reduced by 1.45%, the lowest reduction in percentage terms for a Scottish local authority, or £6.39 million for 2016/17. This compares with a national average reduction of 3.90%.

Councillors were told that savings of £28 million had been identified for the year. The package includes increased charges for some services, shared services, better procurement, investment in technology and the rationalisation and disposal of council buildings.

Councillors agreed a range of reserves totalling £46 million, to include the creation of five reserves to support key priorities. This will see £5 million set aside for regeneration, £4 million for affordable housing, £2 million on renewable energy, £5 million for the City Region Deal and £1 million for capital projects.

A total of £3.2 million was cut from education, with nearly half coming from reductions in early learning and childcare staffing.

Road maintenance budget will be slashed by £973,000, a reduction of nearly 6% and £1.4 million less will be spent on waste management - including the emptying of waste and recycling bins - than in 2015.

In recommending the budget Co-Leader Cllr Martin Kitts-Hayes said: “While we operate in an area with relatively low unemployment and therefore have relative security of employment, we can and should continue to be innovative and dynamic in our approach to service delivery. We will ensure employees are treated fairly and with respect.”

In supporting the revenue budget, Co-Leader Cllr Richard Thomson stressed the significant budget that the council has to deliver public services in Aberdeenshire. “We are investing almost £700 million into local services, with an ambitious Capital Plan, continuation of the excellent local services we provide and for 2016/17 we are committed to making progress towards the delivery of our priorities.

“This includes investment in active travel, building more affordable homes, the Aberdeen City Region Deal, climate change, estate rationalisation, regeneration and a new community campus at Peterhead.”

Recommending the Housing Revenue Account, Cllr Anne Allan highlighted the commitment to meet the Energy Efficiency Standard for Social Housing and the new initiatives to tackle the housing shortage in the region.

She said: “We achieved Scottish Housing Quality Standard by March 2015 and our house modernisation programme continues apace. We are forecasting spend of over £27m in the current year on capital projects including replacement kitchens, bathrooms, windows/doors heating systems and insulation projects. We are also progressing new build housing developments at Peterhead, Fraserburgh and Inverurie.

“We remain hopeful following recent Government announcements on the City Region Deal and additional funding from the Scottish Government that, in conjunction with our partners, we can identify further opportunities to deliver more affordable housing.”