The ruling administration at Argyll and Bute Council has been dealt a blow by the resignation of one of its members - less than a week before the authority votes on its budget plans and council tax rates for the new financial year.
Councillor George Freeman, an independent councillor representing the Lomond North ward, announced on Thursday that he had resigned from both the administration and the Argyll, Lomond and the Islands group of councillors which forms part of that ruling coalition.
Mr Freeman - who will remain a member of the council - voiced his frustration at having had “very little input” into the authority’s Service Choices budget process, saying that he had received very little feedback from other councillors on issues of concern, and that he had begun to feel that he was “just there to make up the numbers”.
“I am also aware,” he said, “that there are many issues within the proposed budget that are of concern to my constituents, and operating as an independent councillor, outwith the political group system, will help to free me from the restrictions inevitably apply that apply to all political groups.
“Unfortunately, due to the massive cuts in funding to Argyll and Bute Council and other local authorities across Scotland by the Scottish Government, there are no easy decisions that can be taken by the council and it is inevitable that it will be the most vulnerable within our communities who will suffer the most from the cuts in service that the council will have to make.”
Mr Freeman’s resignation adds to the uncertainty over the political balance of the council: the ruling coalition of independents, Liberal Democrats and Conservatives technically has just enough for a majority among the 35 elected councillors (there should be 36, but one seat is currently vacant, with a by-election due in the Oban North and Lorn ward on February 18).
However, the coalition’s number officially includes three of the four members of the Argyll First grouping - all four of whom expressed disquiet with the Service Choices process when they abstained from a vote in October on putting the programme out to public consultation.
Outside the ruling administration, though, the picture is also fragmented, with two official groupings - the SNP (9 councillors) and the Reform Group (3) - along with one Labour councillor, making it extremely difficult to predict how the votes will go when the authority meets to set its 2016-17 budget plans and council tax rate on February 11.
Meanwhile, the five largest trade unions representing the council’s employees have issued a joint letter calling on the council to explore “all legitimate avenues...to mitigate, alleviate and oppose austerity cuts”.
The EIS, Unite, Unison, the GMB and UCATT all say they believe around six hundred jobs will have to be lost to bridge the budget gap facing the authority, and that many of those job cuts will have to be achieved through compulsory redundancy.
The unions’ statement calls for “a more progressive agenda for local government”, including measures such as ‘no compulsory redundancy’ agreements, utilising council reserves, “no more austerity denial”, a “boycott, disinvestment and sanctions approach to Israel” and the promotion of “working class and labour history and culture”.