Budget prepares Borders for an uncertain future

Councillor David Parker in front of the Scottish Borders Council Headquarters in Newtown St. Boswells ahead of the announcement of the final budget.
Councillor David Parker in front of the Scottish Borders Council Headquarters in Newtown St. Boswells ahead of the announcement of the final budget.

MEETING increasing service demands with a decreasing budget has been a challenge for Scottish Borders Council who have £264 million to spend on services in the coming financial year and a further £80 million to spend over the next three years on capital projects such as the relocation of Duns Primary School to the old high school site.

Aware that a number of changing factors are likely to put pressure on their funds Scottish Borders Council has had to find areas where efficiencies can be made in order to keep the books balanced, while at the same time freezing council tax for the fifth consecutive year.

“If we are adding £4 million to support services we need to find efficiences elsewhere,” said council leader Councillor David Parker.

“There will be no compulsory redundancies. We believe our policy is absolutely sound and our staff should be thanked for that.

“We are cheaper than most local authorities in Scotland; we aren’t taking out services like other councils are doing. We have difficult challenges out there but thanks to the prudent steps we have taken and the staff accepting a three year pay freeze all major services are being sustained.

“In very difficult financial times, SBC has been able to deliver a budget that protects frontline services and allows us to invest in important services such as roads. We are spending an additional £1.1m supporting children in the year ahead, and we have been able to announce a budget that puts the council on a sound financial footing and prepares us for future challenges.

“In particular, I want to thank the council staff as their decision to accept a total pay freeze has benefited the Borders public as we are not having to make some of the more difficult cuts that other local authorities are announcing.”

Pressures on the council’s budget include: more of the region’s children needing to be looked after by the council and an extra £1.1 million has been set aside to cover the significant increase in numbers plus the need to increase foster care fees and allowances to match other authorities and hopefully increase the number of foster carers so that the children can be looked after in the Borders rather than outside the region; the council are also concerned that the UK Government’s welfare reforms could lead to a greater demand on services in the Borders, estimated at between £8-10 million; demands from an increasingly ageing population continue to put pressure on services; a depressed housing market has reduced council income from developer contributions and planning charges; and an inevitable rise in bad debts because of the economic conditions are all factors that were taken into account when Scottish Borders Council presented their 2012-13 budget this week.

To meet these challenges £4.9 million of efficiences have been identified.

Back office staffing reductions are the biggest savings £776,000; followed by £325,000 from the education budget (arts development, museums, administration, libraries, community asset transfer, management services, halls and community learning all having their budgets reduced); a further £178,000 of savings are being sought by reducing ad-hoc teaching staff costs and absence cover costs; and a £357,000 reduction in social care staffing costs is expected to be made.

Director of social work Andrew Lowe gave an assurance that there would be no reduction in service despite the possible loss of 15.5 full time jobs.

“We are in the process of changing the way we deliver services so there are opportunities to share services with other councils and with NHS Borders, making greater use of new technology.

“There is also the age process in the workforce and some people will be leaving.”

A few financial uncertainties still face Scottish Borders Council: the Scottish Government turning down their request for funding for the latest voluntary redundancy scheme which the council is expected to pay for out of reserves (they are appealing that decision); and the belief from the Scottish Government that the council’s income from non domestic rates will increase substantially.

But while SBC may have avoided any major disruption to services, they are also aware of the need to look beyond the next financial year and are concerned about the age profile of the region and the difficulties facing young people in the current economic climate.

“Who would wish to be a young person coming out of school or university at the moment and looking for work?” asked Councillor Neil Calvert, SBC’s depute leader (with responsibility for finance) when he presented the budget on Tuesday.

“Here in the Borders we have more than the Scottish average of older people who are living longer but we wish to keep our young people in the Borders.

“That’s why we are looking at national housing trust schemes and working with registered social landlords to provide affordable housing and we are currently negotiating with a mortgage provider on a guaranteed mortgage scheme for first time buyers.”

Specific Berwickshire projects included in the capital and revenue budgets include: £361,000 to match fund European Fishing Inititives money for Eyemouth; potential savings of £100,000 from renegotiating the maintenance contracts for the new high schools at Duns, Eyemouth and Earlston; and £3.5 million for the relocation of Duns Primary School to the old high school site.