Tough decisions for Fife Council as budget cuts loom

Fife House, Glenrothes
Fife House, Glenrothes

Jobs on the line ... services face cutbacks ... funding pledge for key priorities ...

Fife’s councillors will meet next week to decide a budget for the new financial year – and their decisions will lead to the loss of hundreds of jobs.

A draft budget published by Fife Council’s Labour administration in November last year proposed making cuts of £14.5 million in 2014/15.

Following consultation with the public and other political parties, it’s expected some of the cuts will be amended or dropped when Labour presents its final version to the Council next Thursday.

But most will remain, and that means up to 700 jobs at risk.

The Council faces tough decisions as it attempts to reduce an anticipated funding gap of £92m by 2018.

Council leader Alex Rowley, when publishing Labour’s draft proposals, admitted taking such a large amount of money out of the budget could not be achieved without affecting jobs and services.

But Cllr Rowley, who will step down as leader later this month following his recent election as MSP for Cowdenbeath, also stressed funds would be found to invest in key priorities.

He said: “We believe that what we’re proposing will make a real difference in our communities – putting our money where it matters most – our schools, our young people, and helping prevent problems associated with poverty and unemployment before they start.

“However we can’t invest without making savings and there are some tough decisions to make.

“Unfortunately some jobs may go but we would hope to manage this through voluntary redundancies and the non-filling of vacant posts.

“The majority of the savings we’re proposing this year will help protect frontline services and continue the work we’re doing to review many of our practices across the organisation.”

Fife’s Conservative group says it is minded to accept much of the detail in the Labour administration’s draft budget.

Cllr Dave Dempsey, group leader, said: “Rather than prepare a separate budget, we’ve looked at the administration’s proposals and suggested a few changes.”

One of the main changes, he said, was that the Conservatives wanted to see no reduction in the road maintenance budget. In fact, they’ve called an extra £1m for maintenance of roads, pavements, verges and public areas.

“The single biggest complaint from the public concerns the state of roads and pavements,” said Cllr Dempsey. “If there are efficiencies to be made then the savings should be reinvested.”

They’ve also called for the inclusion of future savings proposals in the areas of school day realignment, revised class sizes and the school estate.

Cllr Dempsey said: “These future year savings have to be utilised but they should be taken forward in a different way. The public should be consulted before detailed proposals are drawn up. Too often the Council appears to have made its mind up before it asks the public.”

And the Conservatives want to see consideration given to greater use of the private sector in providing social work services, and said it was a nonsense the Council was preparing to build new care homes in areas where its own figures say there’s no need.

The SNP described Labour’s draft budget as “a betrayal of promises to the people of Fife”.

And it said there was a gaping hole in Labour’s proposals following a recent decision to drop plans for £5m worth of cuts from the education service.

Cllr Douglas Chapman, the SNP’s education spokesman, said: “This makes a mockery of Labour’s consultation on its budget as there is now £5m worth of education cuts which are not accounted for anywhere in the consultation.”

He added: “We have already had experience of Labour’s financial mis-management of the Council’s resources in respect of the social work budget.

“To deal with their financial incompetence hundreds of older people have had their home care hours cut drastically, so every financial misjudgement Labour commit has a huge impact on
people’s lives.”

Mild winter and prudence helps Council balance books

A relatively mild winter and some prudent financial planning should ensure Fife Council ends the current year just under budget.

A £14 million overspend on social work services looks likely to be offset by significantly lower loan charges and an underspend in the winter maintenance budget.

But Brian Livingston, Fife Council’s executive finance director, emphasised the importance of finding a way of managing social work spending in the future.

He said: “The significant overspend in social work has only been able to be contained due to savings elsewhere. That’s unlikely to be the position next year.”

The overspend in social work is mainly due to an increasing number of children in need of care and the growing cost of providing home care for older people.

However, there’s a projected underspend in loan charges of just under £11 million and an underspend on ‘contingencies’ – such as dealing with effects of extreme weather – of around £3 million.

Mr Livingston explained loan charges had been kept down through tactical borrowing by making use of positive cash flows and taking advantage of low interest rates.

Councillor Peter Grant, SNP group leader, said a combination of good management by the finance team and good luck had enabled the Council to balance the books.

He said: “A number of factors conspired in our favour and I endorse the note of caution from the director of finance.

“Some of the good bits are not going to be there next year and we have got to address some of the bad bits.”

Council leader Alex Rowley acknowledged the prudent way the budget had been managed throughout the year.

He agreed tackling the overspend in social work was a priority, but not just from the position of balancing the books.

He said: “The real challenge for every one of us is the number of children being brought into the care of the Council, and that’s what we have got to tackle.”

Cllr Rowley added: “I would like to thank the director of finance and his staff who have managed this budget very carefully.”