Fife Council agrees 'most positive budget for years' - but not without dissent
Fife's power-sharing administration has succeeded in pushing through its short and long-term financial plans for the Kingdom, including investment in flooding measures and an extra £1m for remote learning digital devices.
In a relatively brisk if occasionally ill-tempered meeting, the SNP-Labour ruling group told councillors it would sink £9.9m into road repairs in the next two years and almost £10m supporting the local economy, community and tourism, along with £500,000 for tackling poverty.
The key points were:£1.8m extra for health and social care (via Scottish Government)
£100k to support people with autism
£450k additional road maintenance revenue funding every year
£1m for local environmental management
£5.4m flood prevention measures
£2.9m local economy support and £7.5m for tourism and community facilities
£1m of remote learning devices for young people
Co-leaders David Ross (SNP) and David Alexander (Labour) also detailed a refresh of their capital investment plan, which will see nearly £950m sunk into the local area between now and 2031 - including £90m of road improvements and a combined £400m for new school buildings and extensions.
It marks the start of what the administration is branding its most optimistic budget for years, with millions in Covid-related grants helping officers to balance the books and even back down from planned cuts.
An expected 1% reduction in grant funding from the Scottish Government has not come to pass - the cash chunk instead rising by 1.1% in relative terms - and just £540,000 of recurring savings have been included in this year's proposals, down from a projected £6.4 million this time last year.
However, if core funding from ministers remains at current levels, the administration is forecasting a gap of £18.9m next year and as much as £38.3 million in 2023 - an uncomfortable truth it knows it will need to confront sooner or later.
Co-leader David Alexander (SNP) said: "We've agreed a council tax freeze, perfectly timed to give hard-pressed residents a bit of a break.
"We have one of the most coordinated revenue and capital budgets that I've seen. Taken together this is the most positive year for budgets I can recall, where we're concentrating on investments and not reductions.
"We totally understand that 2022/23 will have an additional budget gap to fund but fixing Fife is the priority and we will deal with 2022/23 in due course."
Conservative and Liberal Democrat members unsuccessfully proposed alternate measures for saving and spending local cash.
Lib Dem councillors Jonny Tepp and Tim Brett were accused by Cllr Bobby Clelland (Lab) of pursuing election-friendly policies by drawing money away from homelessness services and grounds maintenance to fund road budgets and maintenance for St Andrews Town Hall.
And the Conservatives' plans to make cuts to council bureaucracy and community education workers to fund road repairs, an extra planning enforcement officer an anti-flytipping squad were dismissed out of hand by Labour group leader Cllr David Ross, who warned other services would suffer if the alternate proposals were approved.
Cllr Ross also made clear that, while a power-sharing coalition, the SNP and Labour groups in Fife were entitled to differences of opinion.
"Just because we're in a position to make some investments shouldn't make us think the budget settlement is a good one - it isn't," he said.
"I'm frequently questioned by people in our party and the general public about why we are in a joint administration with the SNP and this budget is an answer to that.
"I want to give everyone who has questioned me the message that without Labout participation in this joint administration I have no doubt you would not have seen such a progressive budget."
The discussions on Thursday morning were not without incident.
Cllr Mino Manekshaw (Con), in justifying the opposition group's budget amendments, described the deluge of constituents in his inbox as "digital waterboarding" - a reference to a controversial form of torture that simulates drowning.
And Cllr Darren Watt (Con) was made to apologise after describing the SNP group as "dogs" during a statement supporting the Conservative proposals.
He said of the power-sharing agreement: "It's clear co-leader (David) Ross has finally realised if you lie down with dogs you get up with fleas."
Provost Jim Leishman intervened after Cllr Ross branded the remarks "completely out of order, insulting and disrespectful". Ordered to apologise, Cllr Watt said: "My emotions got the better of me."
The administration's budget was passed with the support of 52 councillors.
Following the meeting, Conservative leader Dave Dempsey said the SNP-Labour grouping was seeking to "pull the wool over the public's eyes" by refusing to delegate more spending to Fife's seven local area committees.
The Tories had proposed £3.2 million of extra local area spending power in its unsuccessful amendment.
Cllr Dempsey said: "What the ruling group chose to ignore is that the Conservatives would redirect those funds so local councillors and local people would decide how best to spend them. That won’t now happen.
“Unfortunately, Labour and the SNP don’t trust the public. They prefer to try and pull the wool over their eyes. The public will see through that."
The Conservative leader also defended Cllr Manekshaw's waterboarding remarks.
"It’s based on the drip, drip, drip effect of continual emails and social media comment on the state of the roads, much of it aimed at councillors who can’t really do anything about it," he said.
"It’s wearing and even depressing if you haven’t developed the necessary rhinoceros hide.”