Fife Budget: Fife Council leader David Ross answers key questions

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Council Leader David Ross (Labour) answered some of the key questions about Labour’s budget proposals on Tuesday. Here’s what he had to say:

Q: Give me the elevator pitch for the budget this year: What’s the good, the bad and the ugly?

Councillor Ross: “Fortunately we’ll be able to avoid any significant budget cuts this year. That’s because of a combination of very good housekeeping and good management by our finance staff and senior managers, but there are huge pressures coming in the future that we’re going to have to deal with. Whilst this year we’ll be able to get away without any significant cuts, I’m not sure it’ll be the same next year.”

Q: Rents do look like they’re going up - you’re proposing a 5% increase this year?

David Ross, leader of Fife Council (Pic: Submitted)David Ross, leader of Fife Council (Pic: Submitted)
David Ross, leader of Fife Council (Pic: Submitted)

Councillor David Ross: “We’re going to put the rents up by 5% this year. They tend to be based on inflation, and inflation in September/October when we had the comparison was over 8%. So we are keeping them down as far as we can, but that’s the minimum rent increase we need to be able to maintain the level of current services.

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“And our tenants, when we do the consultatation, tell us they want to have improvements to their properties - new bathrooms, kitchens, roofs - and they also value the money we put into new affordable housing, new build programme. That benefits tenants and frees up houses for homeless tenants or applicants.

Q: How do you justify raising rents while having voids gaps and other issues within housing services?

Councillor David Ross: “The pandemic really hit our service hard. We were unable to get into houses to do repairs and we were unable to do the level of movements and transfers that we wanted. It has taken time to get over that. We are making significant progress now on improving that voids turnaround time but we need to keep putting the funding into that to maintain improvements.”

“That’s the case, people paying the rents will see improvements in the service. But the other thing I would also say is that 67% of our rental income actually comes from Housing Benefit and is paid for by the UK Government. To keep the rents down would in effect be handing money back to the Treasury.”

Q: Let’s talk about Fife Health and Social Care Partnership. You mentioned cuts from the NHS Fife side of things. How will that affect the council?

Councillor David Ross: “My understanding is that NHS Fife are reporting a £60 million blackhole in their budget. The HSCP is funded jointly by NHS Fife and Fife Council. So if NHS Fife are saying they need to make significant cuts, I’m very worried that they will pass that onto the Health and Social Care Partnership. And as we all know, providing social care packages to keep people safe and well in their own homes is much more effective than them having to go into hospital. It’s short sighted to pass those on and we’ll be making that point very strongly to NHS FIfe.”

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Q: Tell me more about “not managing the decline of local government” and your philosophy as we approach the budget this year.

Councillor David Ross: “It’s always been our philosophy that we value local service and we want to protect those local services. A lot of the pressure we get from auditors and the Scottish Government is that we need to make difficult choices - which actually means making cuts in services and budgets.”

“We have avoided doing that as far as we possibly can. We’re not here, as far as I’m concerned, to manage the decline of local government. We’re here to protect services and remain ambitious for our communities and to meet the new and emerging needs coming forward.”

Q: You’re investing half a million pounds to recruit more educational psychologists and you’re hoping that will help to address violence in schools. Can you expand on that?

Councillor David Ross: “We know there is a huge problem across Scotland in all schools with behaviour problems and violence and aggression in some places and assaults on staff and other pupils. It’s not something confined to Fife, but we do take it very seriously. We have a program where in particular schools we put additional support in place, we have particular training, and we’ve improved reporting systems.”

“But one of the things we’re doing in this budget is putting more money into new posts for educational psychologists. That will improve the time it takes for schools to refer young people to specialists and to get assessments and hopefully produce appropriate approaches to young people that have problems or are causing problems in our schools. It’s something we take very seriously, and I've had meetings very recently with all the teaching trade unions about this.”

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Q: Teaching unions are on board with this investment and think it’s the right way forward?

Councillor David Ross: “Yes, they’re happy we’re putting more money in and they’re happy that Fife is taking a proactive approach, but they want to see significant improvements as soon as possible and that isn’t always deliverable.”

Fife Councillors will set the budget on Thursday morning.