Council agrees revenue budget to deliver critical savings

editorial image

West Lothian Council agreed a £426 million budget this week with householders facing a council tax rise of 4.79 per cent across all bands.

Band D properties will see  council tax bills rising  an extra £4.64 a month. Householders in Band H will see their monthly tax bill rise by £11.36 a month.

Savings of £15m will be made in 2019/20. The council is expected to have delivered nearly £157m of savings between 2007/2008 and March 2023.

On the back of this, council leader, Councillor Lawrence Fitzpatrick, gave a commitment to revisit planned changes to early morning gritting and funding for voluntary organisations if future funding becomes available through expected changes to council loan fund legislation.

However, residents can expect further cuts and changes to services as the council seeks to balance increasing demand for services with insufficient grant funding from the Scottish Government.

Over the next four years, the council faces a budget gap of over £51m as a result of Scottish Government grant funding not being sufficient to meet increased costs faced by the council.

The SNP had proposed an alternative budget funded by using  the council’s Insurance Fund reserves to restore opening times at recycling centres and campus school police as well as invest in commuity grants for the Third Sector. 

Funding  would also have removed charges for instrumental music provision.

These proposals were defeated at a vote with the minority Labour administration winning the backing of the Conservatives.

Significant investment in local infrastructure, education and social care, has been promised as part of the budget. 

Last year the council agreed a long-term financial plan, including a wide range of service changes.

The changes will help  the local authority to balance its budget – something councils are legally required to do.

Savings of £46.1m have been agreed, leaving a remaining gap of £4.4m.

The Scottish Government provides the council with about 80 per cent of its funding – with Council Tax making up less than 20 per cent of the council’s funding source.

The  Council Tax increase is the new maximum permitted by the Scottish Government.

In the 2017 Transforming Your Council consultation the majority of respondents agreed with the proposal to raise Council Tax by more than three per cent if all funding raised above three per cent were spent on specific priorities.

Councillor Fitzpatrick said: “Increasing Council Tax levels further is not a decision that is taken lightly but after years of a Scottish Government imposed Council Tax freeze, councils now have the ability to raise Council Tax to help fund local services.

“If we had not increased Council Tax levels to 4.79 per cent officers would have had to find a further £1.4m of savings on top of the £15m already being cut.

“We are always looking to protect local services and this is the only way to do that.

“I share COSLA’s views that local authorities in Scotland are at the cliff edge. Evidence from the Accounts Commission, which polices local government finances in Scotland, highlights that councils are finding the financial pressures increasingly difficult to manage and they have said that the delivery of savings is now critical.

“Despite being faced with reductions in our core funding from the Scottish Government, West Lothian Council is well managed and is planning for the future.

“We will support the most vulnerable groups in West Lothian and ensure that key priority areas such as Education, social care, infrastructure and anti-poverty measures are protected.”

While the council  will cut staff over many areas, more staff will have to be recruited over the next four years, in Education, to meet projected increases in school rolls and to deliver national childcare commitments.

“Overall, the number of staff  is expected to increase by a small number.

Cllr Fitzpatrick said: “In spite of reductions in our funding, we are confident that we are making the right choices for local people and our communities. 

“By aligning our budget with local priorities, we will help to ensure that the needs of the community are met.

“There is no doubt in my mind that, in terms of funding, this is the most challenging time that local government has had to face in a generation. The fact is that the council will have made £157m of savings by March 2023.”

The council has also approved an updated Asset Management Strategy and General Services Capital Programme for 2019/20.

This will involve significant investment of nearly £21 m in schools and other property; almost £11m spent on roads and related assets: over £2m on open spaces; and over £4m invested in vital information and communication technology (ICT) assets.

Cllr Fitzpatrick continued: “It’s vital that our staff have the resources they need to deliver essential services for the people of West Lothian, and this capital investment programme will support that work.

“Without facilities such as schools, depots and partnerships centres, we would not be able to deliver the services that people in West Lothian rely on, so it’s important we invest our limited budget wisely.”