Most challenging budget

A MOVE to scrap Scottish Borders Council’s free newspaper and to spend the savings capping the price of frozen meals for the elderly was roundly defeated on Thursday.

As a result, an austerity budget in which a single-year spending gap of £13million will be bridged was approved and Council Tax frozen for a fourth successive year.

Widely acknowledged as the most challenging budget ever faced by the local authority, the programme of spending plans includes the shedding of around 200 full time jobs, albeit by means of voluntary severance, wholesale increases in the charges SBC levels for its services, and a range of efficiency measures, including switching off all office heating over the summer months.

But Councillor Nicholas Watson (Borders Party) believed the Tory/Lib Dem/Independent administration had got it wrong in removing the subsidy which sees the frozen meals delivered to elderly clients of the social work department currently priced at £2.60.

The budget proposals envisaged that the subsidy would be phased out over the next two years, with the result that the price will go up to £3 on April 1 to save £21,000 and rise to £3.21 in 2011/12 to save £40,000 annually.

Mr Watson contrasted this hike with what he considered the drain on scarce resources of SB Connect, the free newspaper which is written and edited by an in-house team at Newtown and sent free three times a year to 54,000 households.

The annual cost of this venture is nearly £40,000, although this rose to £47,000 with the publication of the recent one-off winter issue.

It is not the first time the future of the magazine has been called in question. In December, Councillor David Paterson (Ind, Hawick) asked how it could be justified at a time of across-the-board cuts.

He was told by council leader David Parker that SB Connect was “a very useful source of information” and “a good, value-for-money solution for communicating with the Borders public”.

Mr Watson also believed that the council’s household survey, most recently carried out by a Carlisle-based market research company, should take place every three years and not biennially as proposed, thus saving a further £16,000 to prop up the frozen meal subsidy into the future.

But the administration held firm against these challenges.

Mr Watson’s amendment to scrap SB Connect fell by 24 votes to four and his proposal to hold less frequent household surveys was outvoted by 23-5.

Mr Watson fared marginally better with his plea to keep the price of frozen meals at the current level, his motion defeated by 18 votes to six.

After the meeting, Mr Watson told us: “Councillors should be in tune with their constituents and not need to rely on a household survey to know what people think of SBC, good or bad.

“As for SB Connect, most people regard it as propaganda and don’t bother to read it. The council should be judged on what it does, not on what it says it does.

“Of course, we sometimes need to get information to people, but there are plenty of other more direct and less expensive ways.

“The subsidy on frozen meals may not look significant to SBC bosses, but with rising fuel costs and food inflation way ahead of pensions, I fear the increase will mean some older people will not take the meals.

“We should respect and support independent living as best we can and it makes financial sense to do so as a frail person can soon require much more substantial help from the public purse than a decent meal.”

Thursday’s meeting was not, however, all doom and gloom for the Borders Party with the administration rethinking its original proposal to cut the contract for so-called Young Carers from £75,000 to £50,000.

More on Scottish Borders Council’s budget decisions on page 2.