Argyll and Bute sets its budget - but rows rumble on

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ARGYLL and Bute Council may have settled its 2011-12 budget - but the storm over the authority’s financial situation shows little sign of abating.

Councillors voted in favour of a package of savings worth £12 million when they met in Lochgilphead on Thursday - but there was fury among some opposition members who felt the authority’s leadership had refused to listen to criticism of their position.

Where most, if not all, councillors were in broad agreement was on the view that the budget settlement for the next 12 months is likely to have a greater impact on the area’s residents than any that have gone before.

Bute’s three councillors were, not unsurprisingly, split on their reaction to the settlement, with opposition SNP councillors Robert Macintyre and Isobel Strong warning that cuts in spending would leave vulnerable people particularly at risk, while the authority’s depute provost Len Scoullar, a member of the ruling independent-Conservative-Lib Dem coalition, said every effort had been made to protect those most vulnerable.

In Bute and Cowal, the HELP Project, which provides housing support for young people and their families, will see its council funding reduced by a third - less than the original plan to cut its grant in half - while across the council area, it is anticipated that 494 jobs will be lost in the next three years, most, it is hoped, through voluntary redundancy.

In education, a proposal to remove school attendance officers’ posts was not taken; a 50 per cent cut in speech and language therapy spending was delayed until April 2012, and schools’ PE and swimming budgets will be cut by 50 per cent instead of being withdrawn altogether.

The revision of pupil support and psychological service was cut by 50 per cent, and a proposal to withdraw the music instructor service was not accepted, although the council is to look at options to set up a social enterprise which can deliver this service in the future.

In response to repeated signs that residents want to see more money spent on the area’s road network, the council agreed to allocate an additional £225,000 towards loan payments, which will enable plans for £3 million of improvements across the roads of Argyll and Bute.

Elsewhere, the council agreed to remove the budget allocated to the storage, maintenance, erection and removal of Christmas lights, but this will not take effect until Christmas 2012.

The closure of some public conveniences, and cuts in staffing in community development, adult learning and literacy, were not approved.

Changes to housing support, elderly services and sheltered housing funding have been delayed for six months, while adult care savings have been deferred to bring the service into line with the review of older people’s services, learning disability and other adult care services.

Plans to develop Argyll and Bute’s town centres in Oban, Dunoon, Campbeltown, Helensburgh and Rothesay will share a £300,000 reduction to the CHORD project budget as the council felt there were sufficient funds remaining to bring the programme to a conclusion.

Councillor Scoullar told us: “We always knew this would be a very difficult budget, so none of our decisions were taken lightly. I realise that some of the cuts will affect the third sector but it just isn’t possible to do everything the same way when we have much less money.

“We have made every effort to protect services for the most vulnerable people across Argyll and Bute.

“Despite considering the budget options for a long time in consultation with our residents, making cuts has been anything but easy. Sometimes councillors have to make difficult decisions, and I can assure your readers that this budget was just that.”

Councillor Robert Macintyre said: “The budget savings will hit everyone, especially the vulnerable. I can see difficulties within home care come April, when the carers who have taken voluntary redundancy packages see the work lost taken by the private sector. The budget cut of 33 per cent to the HELP Project is a severe blow to Bute and Cowal.

“Other measures perhaps don’t go far enough. The cut in council officers’ travel budget was overdue. We spend £1.5 million travelling the length and breadth of Argyll and Bute and further afield.

“Last financial year we spent £861,000 on consultants. This has only been reduced by £75,000. It should have been much more.

“The decision to borrow £3 million to spend on the road network is correct. We all know our road network is crumbling.

“Some of the intended cuts which the administration proposed, and are now not taking, I suspect they never intended to take away.”

However, rumblings of discontent over the financial position of the council - which faced the highest percentage cut of any local authority in its Scottish Government grant - look set to go on for a while yet.

Opposition councillors last Thursday were particularly angry that George Freeman, an opposition independent, had not been able to put forward an amendment critical of the council’s leadership and its position in relation to grant money allocated through the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (CoSLA).

Bute SNP councillor Isobel Strong said: “The overall amount the council has to spend has been massively cut by £5.588 million because of the cut in ‘Supporting People’ and former ring fenced grants allocated via COSLA.

“The allocation means that Argyll and Bute Council does not have the money to spend on services for vulnerable people.

“The Scottish Government has tried to get CoSLA to change back to its previous distribution, but it has refused to change because some of the large Labour and Lib Dem councils had a great deal to gain.

“The leader of Argyll and Bute Council was present at most of the CoSLA leaders’ meetings and failed to appreciate the potential loss to our council.

“The SNP group put forward an amendment to defer the budget for a few weeks, to try and get more money back from CoSLA, but this was defeated. Another opposition amendment was also defeated but what was shameful was that a further amendment to be proposed by Cllr Freeman which severely criticised the council’s position on CoSLA was not even allowed to be taken.

“Cllr Freeman had indicated he wanted to speak, but no one at the top table saw his hand raised, so his well researched contribution to the budget debate was not even heard. Although Cllr Macintyre and I protested, the meeting had been closed and that was that.”

In his budget speech, council leader Dick Walsh said: “It would be wrong to pretend that we can continue to provide all of the services we do at the moment or to suggest that services in the future will be provided in the same way as they are now.

“Our budget is about much more than the way in which the council spends its money, it is more about our people, their services and how any change impacts on their quality of life.”

He continued: “Key points I wish to make throughout my budget speech are that this council is fit for purpose; we are an improved and improving organisation; this year’s budget was always going to be difficult; it got harder when we received our settlement figures – and to make it absolutely clear – this was not a result of any action or inaction on the part of this council.”