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Personal budget thoughts
North Ayrshire Council set the budgets for the coming year at a special online meeting of the council held on Thursday March 4.
We were told that the coming year will again be very challenging for the council. Savings are needed to balance the books reducing services yet again, although some of the more ‘challenging’ savings have been pushed to next year.
A councillor is a rather surreal job in that although we officially agree and approve the budget, in reality we have very little say in how money is allocated and spent.
The council has budgets totalling over £400 million (revenue and capital) and a huge administrative machine to oversee and operate its services, so when on budget day we councillors spend a couple of hours arguing how £800,000 is to be spent, one has to ask why we get so excited about it.
The reason is that even these little choices make a difference to people’s lives. A lot can be done with £800,000 if it’s used effectively.
I proposed that the council should use £785,000 of its investment fund to support two health and care initiatives – the first was for community mental health programmes to help people as we come out of the pandemic crisis, and the second was to improve care at home through the more effective use of technology.
In the long-term both these initiatives would save money and provide better care – real transformational changes that affect some of the most vulnerable in our society.
However, I was not able to persuade enough of my councillor colleagues to support this proposal, and the money will instead be spent on employing a digital recovery officer for three years at the cost of £250,000, and £350,000 on outdoor and residential learning and experiences.
We have to make tough choices but I really fail to see how my two projects that address burning issues of now can be less important than employing somebody for digital recovery that I was not even aware needed to be ‘recovered’.
In the Scottish government draft spending plans announced a few weeks ago it states that the overall funding available to the Scottish government will increase next year by just over nine per cent when compared with last year.
This is a huge increase in available spending power and, of course, with Covid still with us, there are some big issues still to grapple with.
However, many of these issues fall to our councils to address so it is somewhat shocking that the Scottish government only sees fit to give Scotland’s councils a 0.8 per cent increase, which does not even cover inflation.
Councils have seen huge increases in demand for services during the Covid pandemic making a miserly increase in funding a slap in the face for the most vulnerable in our society, who rely so heavily on council support.
The Scottish government did, however, have enough spare cash to give each council enough money to cover the cost of freezing council tax rather than raising it by three per cent.
In North Ayrshire around 22 per cent of all households get relief on their council tax, so either don’t pay council tax or only pay a reduced amount.
These families, unsurprisingly, are the ones most likely to have money issues, have care, health or social needs, and, therefore, rely most heavily on council services. They get no benefit from the tax freeze but are hardest hit by cuts in council services.
At a time when so many are facing job losses and rising levels of mental and physical illness, perhaps those of us who are fortunate to have a secure job and an income should have been asked to contribute a bit more.
The money set aside to freeze council tax could have been used to protect services for the vulnerable, and not used as a populist pre-election bribe.
Conservative councillor for Arran and Ardrossan.