The Bute councillors who attended Argyll and Bute’s annual budget meeting on Thursday have come to very different conclusions about what the local council’s spending plans for 2016-17 will mean for Bute.
Independent Len Scoullar, who is also Argyll and Bute’s provost, backed the budget proposals put forward by the council’s ruling administration of independents, Liberal Democrats and Conservatives, while the SNP’s Isobel Strong, unsurprisingly, gave her support to an alternative plan drawn up by the council’s SNP group.
The administration’s proposals were approved after gaining the support of 19 of the 33 councillors present at Thursday’s meeting; the SNP’s amendment received nine votes, while the radical Reform Group proposal got the backing only of that group’s three members.
Mr Scoullar said: “I think the administration’s budget proposals were very good for Bute.
“All the things that were creating problems in people’s minds for Bute have, to some extent, been resolved - additional money has been set aside for the Pavilion in the capital plan, and Ardencraig Gardens and nursery and the Esplanade floral displays will continue.
“I’m deeply sorry for anyone on Bute who will be adversely affected in any way by the budget, but the council is facing very, very difficult times as a result of the reduced funding it is receiving from the Scottish Government.
Mrs Strong said: “While the outcome was good, in general, for education and communities, there was no need for such a wide range of ‘savings options’ to be made public so far in advance. Many people were greatly distressed at the prospect of losing their jobs and the thought that schools might lose so many of their support staff.
“I am also disappointed that while classroom assistants and other education staff are being protected, secondary school librarians are facing the axe, which doesn’t fit well with the emphasis on literacy, which is, or should be, a priority for this council.
“The librarian at Rothesay Joint Campus is involved in valuable work with pupils throughout the school which will be seriously affected if she is made redundant in a false economy by the administration.”
The third councillor for Bute, Robert Macintyre, was unable to attend Thursday’s meeting due to a hospital appointment, though he indicated beforehand that had he been present he would have supported the ruling administration’s proposals.
Council leader Dick Walsh said: “The decisions we have made mean that, despite significant financial challenges, we can continue to deliver a huge range of services. We can provide much of what our communities have told us they want. We can invest in regeneration and the prosperity Argyll and Bute deserves.
“Delivering a balanced budget in these financial circumstances needs decisions we would rather not have to make. We would love to do everything our communities want us to. Since cuts to our funding rule that out, our focus is on doing as much of what our communities want from us as we can.
“We are doing all possible to keep unavoidable job losses to a minimum, and will use our tried and tested methods to ensure, as much as we can, that there is a place for everyone who wants to continue working for Argyll and Bute Council.”
Argyll and Bute’s MSP Michael Russell and MP Brendan O’Hara were less enthusiastic; Mr Russell said the failure of councillors to back the SNP’s alternative would cause suffering throughout the area.
Mr Russell said: “Strenuous efforts by communities and the opposition did force Dick Walsh and his administration to withdraw some of the most harmful proposals and to seek savings in areas such as councillor expenses, which originally the administration was not going to touch.
“I am also pleased that as a result of the hard work by John Swinney and the Scottish Government and efforts that I and my colleagues have been making over the past three months the administration has agreed to start on the long overdue process of transforming and decentralising services. Work will now commence on putting together a rural regeneration package with the Scottish Government and I am happy to continue to support that process.”
Mr O’Hara added: “Argyll and Bute would have been much better served by all the councillors backing the alternative budget proposed by the SNP council group. The administration budget will cut deeply into communities and services across the area.
“Nonethe ess our constructive work with the Scottish Government in trying to get the council to change and prepare for the future now appears to be taking root and I will continue to support that process.
“I am also pleased that the SNP council group has committed itself and the party to work with other opposition groups in order to push forward an agenda to change which gives hope for a better future after the council elections next year.”