Labour and SNP agree to put more cash into their new budget - saving jobs and services, reducing costs and boosting investment for North Ayrshire - despite warning from their own Chief Executive.
A historic day at North Ayrshire Council’s HQ last Wednesday culminated in the ruling Labour Party passing an amendment - which the SNP further amended - to their own budget.
In an unusual move, Labour and their leader Joe Cullinane put forward a number of changes to the budget brought forward by the council and their officials.
Both Cllr Cullinane and SNP group leader, Cllr Marie Burns, were delighted that the amendment was passed with an additional £12million in investment being put forward, including increases in funding for the Health and Social Partnership (HSCP), investment in addressing poverty in the local area and allowing locals to decide how money is spent within their towns.
But Chief Executive of the Council, Elma Murray, was not convinced and advised against using underspend from a capital project saying that it ‘didn’t represent best value’ and that she and her team had explained the full financial consequences to Council Leader Joe Cullinane.
The Administration budget options set out by Cllr Cullinane included using un-earmarked reserves and reducing them in order to use the money to invest in the local people, taking almost £3million from the underspend of last year and nearly £2.5million that was set aside for the new learning disability day centre and will be used in a new Community Investment Fund which comes into place under the HSCP.
This means that nearly £700,000 of cuts have been stopped for this year including no rise in cemetery fees, no reduction in school library staff and no increase in charges for the special uplift of rubbish.
Cuts that will come in to play include brown bins only being collected every fortnight instead of weekly and reduced ICT budgets for schools.
Housing continues to play a key role in supporting the delivery of the Council priorities.
A housing revenue budget of £48m and a total capital investment programme of £53m was approved by elected members.
This will result in £33million invested in council house building as well as more than £11m to deliver 750 new kitchens, 700 new bathrooms, re-roofing and re-rendering of 800 houses, new central heating in 350 houses and rewiring of 200 houses.
Council house rent levels in North Ayrshire are expected to remain below the Scottish average and this will continue following the introduction of a 2.79 per cent increase to rent levels from 1 April.
North Ayrshire Council anticipates further reductions in grant funding in 2018-19 and beyond, creating significant challenges in balancing its budget.
Cllr Cullinane couldn’t hide his delight in passing the ‘radical and bold plan’ and said: “I’m delighted.
I put forward a package of investment proposals of almost £12.5million and about 96 per cent of the proposals that I put forward today at the full council meeting have been agreed.
“We’ve spent six months working on these, when we came into power we said that our number one over-arching aim would be to tackle inequality and poverty. We said that we would do it through a range of things, including stronger communities, and that’s where the idea of devolving money and services, down to communities is absolutely vital to that.
“What you did have was a slight amendment from the SNP opposition group and what they didn’t mention in their amendment because they didn’t have previous sight of it, was the fact that I mentioned in my speech that it’s not just the community investment fund that has been devolved, it is also £1million of Streetscene expenditure which is around grounds maintenance and £1million of Health and Social Care Partnership funding.
“That’s where you can see that this is very much the Labour Budget and what we’ve had is tinkering around the edges.”
The ‘tinkering’ from the SNP included an extra £300,000 for roads, £100,000 for participatory budgeting and a £200,000 inward investment fund.
The SNP and group leader Marie Burns said that this was their budget and Labour were just claiming credit for it.
Speaking after the meeting, she said: “We are really happy and I think in effect the budget we agreed was our proposal.
To be fair, there was a lot in common between the starting points and I think that reflects the fact that Labour have only been in power for six months, a lot of what they’re doing is things that we already started.
“It’s a bit strange [Labour putting forward their proposals] I don’t know why they did that. Officers shouldn’t be proposing a budget and I am a bit surprised as to why they were put into that position. I think it’s a bit odd and I don’t understand why but I am happy with the end result.
“I was really disappointed in Councillor Marshall’s amendment, I thought that was a disgrace actually and I think that was one of the big things that ourselves and Labour agreed on was that Health and Social Care is a major issue and the pressure from the increase in demand for elderly care and for childcare is huge in North Ayrshire and not to acknowledge that is ridiculous actually, I think that’s why both ourselves and Labour had that in the budget.
“The other thing is community empowerment. We are really keen on community empowerment. The Scottish Government introduced the Community Empowerment Act and we set up these six localities and for us we really want to start challenging them and asking them what they want to do in their area.
“£200,000 might not seem much but we wanted to get something in there about inward investment. I worked in schools for years and you can have as much skills and training as you like but if you don’t have jobs at the end of the day, it is a real issue so it was really important we got that in as well.
“We support the Council Tax increase and we would have increased it as well.
Cllr Cullinane hit out at the SNP and said this was their budget, he said: “What we saw from the SNP opposition group was a frantic attempt to cobble together an amendment.
“In the few hours between the cabinet meeting in the morning and the budget meeting in the afternoon, their leadership where huddled together scratching their heads wondering how to respond to our radical proposals in a war that could save face.
“In a Labour budget that proposed £12.3million of additional investment, the SNP proposed to simply shift four per cent of our plans between business support initiatives and investment in roads that we had already proposed to invest money in.
“With 96 per cent of Labour’s budget intact, and with our core aims on devolving power, investing in HSCP and tackling poverty intact I accepted the minor amendments in order to pass our budget and avoid the Tory/Independent plans to stop every penny of our additional investment.
“That some in the SNP leadership have tried to claim some credit for this radical Labour budget is typically shameless of an SNP group who imposed austerity budgets on our community whilst increasing the council’s reserves and then ran away as soon as things got tough.
“It was plain for all at the meeting to see, and many have mentioned it to me since, that the SNP amendment accepted the exact same officer budget proposals that we were accepting, is that just a coincidence? I think not.
“The fact is that their leadership are unable to fully explain some of Labour’s radical proposals and they failed to mention the devolution of Streetscene and HSCP funding, presumably because I announced these measures during my budget speech and they had no preparation time to include it in their cobbled together budget notes.”
The amendment from Cllr Tom Marshall, seconded by Cllr John Hunter, which wanted to accept the Council Officers budget was defeated by 23-3 when it went to a vote.
The amendment wished to keep the Council Tax at the status quo.