Budget special 3
Budget meeting becomes phoney war as council tax goes up 3 per cent
The SNP administration (and Cllr Denis Agnew) on West Dunbartonshire Council with (below) David McBride, Martin Rooney, Jim Bollan and Lawrence O’Neill.
Special report by BILL HEANEY
March 6, 2018 – There were two elephants in the room during the annual budget meeting of West Dunbartonshire Council.
The first to emerge was a mild and not very sustained challenge to the computer-based consultation process.
Labour maintained it was flawed to the extent that 352 people who filled in the on-line form, which was said, with 2,700 responses, to have been best public consultation ever – had ticked a box which indicated they were councillors.
Half the councillors present said they had not filled it in. There were not 22 never mind 352 responses from elected representatives.
Cllr Lawrence O’Neill suggested that even half the number of councillors present hadn’t filled it in, the document was not something anyone could lay much store by.
There was an equally weak defence of the consultation process by Malcolm Bennie, the council’s head of communications, who tried but failed to explain it all away at a decibel level that was for the most part inaudible.
Sceptical council members appeared not to have a clue what Mr Bennie, complete with laptop, was talking about. In fairness, neither did I.
The Council would have us believe that a high percentage of people living locally are IT literate.
And are frequent users of the council’s internet website on which they spend large sums of our money.
However, this does not stand up to admittedly cursory scrutiny. How do I know this?
I looked out of my window in central Dumbarton this morning (Tuesday) to see rows of green bins lined up and awaiting collection.
This was despite a prominent notice on the council website asking people not to put out their bins because all collections would be delayed for days due to a backlog caused by the Beast from the East.
If householders had known or bothered to look (or had the IT skills to connect with the council website) then they would not have gone to the trouble of heaving their bins out to the icy and still snow-covered pavements.
The majority of members of the public don’t seem to be interested in IT (Information Technology), which is a great pity since it has been declared as the SNP’s way to go for the next year.
The council will be spending £1.1 million in technology, digital and wi-fi “to improve services and increase accessibility”.
This will include live screenings of council meetings, increasing support in libraries for residents to improve their digital skills, the main one of which they hope will be paying their council tax on-line.
Councillors maintain that during the past year of SNP stewardship website satisfaction increased from 74 to 90 per cent; technology helped them to answer more telephone calls from the public, and they got a 4-star rating for the council website from the Society for IT practitioners in the public sector for the second year running.
They will have to face up to the fact that a large percentage of people living locally do not have a clue about the internet.
And the true consequence of having few advertisements and next to no public notices in local newspapers to tell people what is happening is that the public are kept in the dark about what is being done in their name with their money.
The Budget meeting turned out to be a phoney war with an inevitable outcome between Labour and the SNP with only veteran councillor Jim Bollan of the Community Party making any significant contribution from amongst the others.
There was no blood on the floor and no impassioned speech making.
The Tories must have known this was going to happen since at least one of them, Councillor Brian Walker, from Vale of Leven, didn’t even bother to turn up.
Jonathan McColl, the SNP leader, and his finance sidekick, Andrew Dickson, did a passable job of putting the SNP’s vision for a “fairer future” before the electorate, about 30 of whom were squeezed into the public benches.
There was little or no protest though about the fact that council tax is going up by three per cent this year.
So confident were the SNP that they had their “vision, values and ethos” all wrapped up in advance in a smart coloured brochure and ready for public distribution. Get one at your local library – if it’s open at a time to suit you.
Naturally, it contained a full-page picture of the full SNP council contingent of councillors along with the Communications and Culture chief, Bailie Denis Agnew, an Independent who is supporting the SNP administration in much the same manner as the DUP is supporting the Conservatives at Westminster and keeping them in power.
Bailie Agnew, who squeezed his obsolete title and gold chain out of them in return for his support during a political horse trading session after the election, was the first person to put his hand up when the roll call vote was called to approve the SNP budget, which was carried by 12 votes to eight.
Remarkably, amongst the measures supported by the Arts and Culture convener, were reduced hours and staff cuts in local libraries and means testing for young musicians in order to qualify for grants for music lessons.
Perhaps he prefers the Dandy and Francie and Josey?
Labour leader Martin Rooney interjected that SNP austerity would put the future of the successful Dumbarton Ukulele Band in jeopardy.
The second elephant in the room to emerge was the fact, concealed up to now, that the Council had enough money in its reserves not have to make any cuts at all.
Labour’s David McBride said: “Today this council has the opportunity to reject cuts to vital services.”
He claimed Labour would do a better job of protecting services – “even the Tories have not cut Scotland’s budget to the level the Nationalists have done to local government”.
And he accused the SNP of “laughing and guffawing at cuts to jobs and services at the hands of Holyrood”.
He said the public consultation was unnecessary and that the line being put about that Labour had left a black hole in the council’s finances when they left the administration was “wholly dishonest and blatant lies”.
Cllr McBride condemned the “lack of transparency” in the SNP budget, especially in regard to management adjustments which had been concealed from the public for the first time ever by the SNP.
The Labour alternative would be to use cash reserves of £2.5 million on anti-poverty projects to help vulnerable families and protect services such the care of gardens scheme; libraries; the Health and Social Care budget; cleaners’ jobs in schools and public buildings and introduce meals for hungry children every day of the week and during school holidays.
It would have increased the school clothing grant to £130 per child.
Despite all the back slapping that had gone on amongst councillors and officials about how well the council dealt with the recent bad weather, much of which was deserved, a Labour council would enhance winter gritting with 24 tractors.
Community Party councillor Jim Bollan said the SNP decision to reduce the number of paid trade union conveners was out of step with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s stated wish to have closer links with the trade unions.
Later, outside the meeting, council trade union conveners told me they would be giving serious consideration to withdrawing their co-operation and refusing to take part in talks with the HR department until this was withdrawn.
One union official said: “The workforce here needs all the trade union representation and support it can get at this time when so many changes are taking place and so many people feel their jobs and working conditions are under threat.”
Labour leader Martin Rooney said some of the SNP cuts were “despicable” and was particularly vexed that education maintenance grants to pupils from poor families in deprived areas would be reduced.
He said this was taking bread out of the mouths of poor families.
The reductions in grants to voluntary organisations was ill thought out since the money given by councils attracted financial support from other sources.
Labour’s proposals would save 150 local government jobs and protect services, he said.