Council had 'no indication' cuts would be worse than expected

ARGYLL and Bute Council had no advance indication that its financial settlement for 2011-12 would be significantly worse than the national average, the authority has insisted.

In response to accusations that council leader Dick Walsh and chief executive Sally Loudon had failed to fight Argyll and Bute's corner at a meeting of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities in November, when councils' budget settlements were discussed, the authority has insisted that "those present would not have been able to identify a reduction" in Special Islands Needs Allowance and Supporting People funding.

Together those reductions comprise slightly less than half of the 11.429 million, or 4.94 per cent, by which Argyll and Bute's Scottish Government grant will be reduced in the next financial year - almost double the Scottish average of 2.59 per cent.

Mid Argyll Lib Dem councillor Alison Hay was also criticised, having attended the meeting on November in her capacity as CoSLA's environment spokesperson.

The council has issued a statement saying: "Papers presented at the CoSLA meeting did not give any indication that the settlement for Argyll and Bute would be significantly below the national average.

"In addition, the two areas of funding which contain the majority of Argyll and Bute Council's reduction – the Special Island Needs Allowance (SINA) and the Supporting People allocation – were not highlighted in the CoSLA papers.

"Those present would not have been able to identify a reduction of allowance in those particular areas from the papers issued on November 19. The impact of these reductions was not indicated until budget settlement papers were issued.

"In the past, where wild variations in funding have emerged for councils the Scottish Government has advised CoSLA in advance, so these could be discussed with council leaders and a mitigation strategy agreed.

"On this occasion there was no indication from either the government or CoSLA that the settlement would include any such variation."

The council says that because the reduction in its grant is more severe than expected, an extra 6 million in savings will have to be found before the authority sets its 2011-12 budget on February 12.

The authority's statement also says the Scottish Government's decision to present only a one-year budget settlement in October, instead of the usual three years, made it "even more difficult" for the council to put together long-term spending plans.

Councillor Walsh said: "If we received an average reduction in our budget for local government then we were looking at unpalatable cuts within services.

"Because our budget cuts are double the national average we now have to look at devastating cuts.

"I wrote to the cabinet secretary, John Swinney, a number of weeks ago to discuss with him the impact of the Scottish government settlement will have on our communities.

"I am awaiting a response and would hope following these discussions I will be in a position to report that our budget situation has improved and these more devastating cuts won't need to be made."

But the authority's defence of its position has cut no ice with non-aligned Helensburgh independent Cllr James Robb, who has been at the forefront of criticism of the leader and chief executive on the issue.

"Of the two possible excuses, the council has opted for a defence of ignorance and continues to try and shift the blame onto others," Cllr Robb said.

"This new coalition is foundering badly, and is failing the people of Argyll and Bute, now again on Supporting People funding.

"The SINA changes were known in advance, but I would thank the Scottish Government for not using its powers to claw back previous over-payments."