Trying to make it all add up ...

Some of the protesters who gathered outside Fife House ahead of the Council's budget meeting. Pic: FPA
Some of the protesters who gathered outside Fife House ahead of the Council's budget meeting. Pic: FPA

Councillors crunch the numbers as protesters call for an end to cuts

Banners and placards were on display as protesters staged a demonstration outside Fife Council’s headquarters.

Inside, councillors tried to make sense of reams of papers full of financial figures.

They argued over whose fault it was that there wasn’t enough money to go round.

They argued over whether the money they did have was being spent wisely.

And in the end, it all made very little difference as no one budged from their entrenched positions.

Welcome to budget day at Fife Council ...

The Labour administration insisted it was continuing to manage the Council’s finances prudently and responsibly, but it was having to make difficult decisions and choices as local government finance continued to be squeezed.

It accepted a council tax freeze for an eighth year in a row, insisting the penalty imposed by the SNP-Scottish Government for not doing so would have been too great.

But Labour claimed the continuing freeze had resulted in a significant cut in the funding available to pay for local services.

The SNP, however, responded by blaming the current financial woes on the “disastrous economic failure” of the last Labour UK Government.

And it said it rejected the austerity agenda being promoted by Labour in Westminster and put into practice by Labour in Fife.

Labour leader David Ross said a combination of rising demand for services, increasing service costs and decreasing income made this the most difficult period the Council had ever faced.

But he vowed his administration would continue to put people first.

“We will not desert those who are most vulnerable – those who depend on our services for their critical care needs,” he said. “We will find a way to meet these needs, however difficult it becomes. And we will argue vigorously and take whatever realistic action is open to us to in defence of our valuable local services.”

He set out a budget which included £8.8m of cuts (or savings, depending on your point of view) in 2015-16, rising to £35.6m by 2017-18.

But proposals to cut £27m from education were dropped, with Labour arguing additional money should come from Holyrood.

However, Cllr Peter Grant, SNP group leader, called on the administration to “stop wasting energy picking fights with the Scottish Government” and instead honour its manifesto pledge to “focus on what the Council is doing for itself instead of blaming others for its own actions”.

A proposal by independent councillors Willie Clarke and Bryan Poole to increase the council tax by enough to cover the Scottish Government ‘penalty’ and provide some extra money for education and social care received some sympathy and criticism, but no votes from any of the political parties.

In the end, it was Liberal Democrat support which ensured Labour’s budget was taken forward.

Lib Dem group leader Tim Brett said his party had been pleased the administration had decided not to proceed with changes to the primary school day, and welcomed the additional funding for both children’s services and adult and older people’s social work services.

Facts & figures: Efficiency savings, cuts, charges ... and investments

The council tax will remain unchanged for an eighth year in a row - the Band D rate stays at £1118 per year.

Efficiency savings are expected from a number of services, including education and support for children (£2.3m), health and social care (£869,000), transport and the environment (£419,000) and communities (£789,000), while a further £758,000 will be saved by “working more efficiently”.

The cost of school meals will be going up, a £20 charge for processing Blue Badges will be introduced, and the concessionary rail charge will rise from 50p to £1.

Cuts include the closure of some school kitchens, ‘reprioritising’ work on roads, footpaths and bridges, and reductions in the parks, streets and open spaces workforce.

Two key areas for investment include £11m in social care for adults and older people, and £14m in caring for children and young people.

Stand and fight against the cuts

Protesters outside Fife House on Thursday morning urged Fife Council – and other local authorities across Scotland – to fight back against the “austerity agenda”.

The pre-budget demonstration was organised by campaign group The People’s Assembly Fife and supported by Fife Trades Union Council and a number of individuals. Spokesman Tam Kirby said the cuts being forced on councils were hitting the poorest people in society.

“They are the ones bearing the brunt of the cuts because they are the ones who use the services the most,” he said.

“It’s time that councils started pushing back against the whole austerity-driven agenda that’s being forced upon them.”

He welcomed the alternative proposals put forward by independent councillors Bryan Poole and Willie Clarke, which included a rise in council tax, and the Labour administration’s decision to shelve cuts to education.

The protesters received a “fairly positive” reaction from councillors of all sides, and Mr Kirby admitted they had his sympathy as he didn’t believe any of them had gone into local government to cut services.

“They kind of agree with us that, yes, the cuts are terrible and they shouldn’t be happening,” he said. “But the problem I’ve got is what they are doing about it.

“Why are they accepting it? Why are they not pushing back against the government?

“They need to stand up and say enough is enough, there’s nothing left to cut. The cupboard is empty.”

Council leader David Ross said he shared the protesters’ concerns, and he shared their desire to defend public services. However, he didn’t agree with calls not to set a budget, as this would have had considerable legal and financial impications.

He vowed to work with Scotland’s other local authorities through CoSLA to find a better way forward.