NOTEBOOK by Bill Heaney
Budgeting is a pain in the backside, and most people hate filling in forms.
If there is any reason at all for having councillors then it is that the persons you have voted for will do that for you.
Especially since he/she is likely to reflect your own views and share your priorities in what’s most needed to make your community a desirable place to live. Otherwise why would you have voted for them?
And then, of course, there will be others having a say in this so-called consultation who might not even bother to vote when the election comes around.
They will sit in the house as usual and moan when what they have suggested has not been chosen as a priority for the Council.
The SNP administration on West Dunbartonshire Council, who made a bourach of the current year’s budget, which has more seen more U-turns than motorists attempting to follow diversion signs in Dumbarton, appear to have lost their nerve.
They have no confidence in their own budget drafting capabilities, swallowed their pride and are benignly giving us residents more say on how its budget is used as part of a new consultation process being introduced.
This new “priority-based engagement” will see local residents being consulted six months in advance of the budget being set to tell the bean counters and elected members which Council services are vital to them.
At the end of the day, when all the forms are filled in starting in August, both Council Officers and Elected Members (notice which group is given precedence here) they expect to have “a clear indication of the service areas in which there is an appetite for change”.
It would be interesting to find out how many of these forms are distributed and how many are returned filled in, but The Democrat is banned by the Council from asking questions.
And even more fascinating to witness how the council taxpayers’ money is distributed since the whole consultation process is open to widespread abuse.
For example, if the people of Haldane want a community café and they have a few hard-working community councillors prepared to go around the estate and persuade hundreds of residents to make that a priority on their form, will they get one automatically?
Or will the SNP administration question the proposal closely and make the final decision?
A Council spokesperson said: “Information gathered throughout the consultation will be reported back to Council and inform the options which are presented to Elected Members for consideration when setting the 2020/21 budget.”
So, the councillors will make the decision at the end of the day based on what they think Haldane needs rather than automatically follow the advice of the residents who have returned the forms stating what they want.
Since they will feel under no obligation to prioritise (their word, not mine) the residents’ requests then this consultation, like most, if not all consultations, will be a waste of time.
It will fall into the Parkinson’s Law category – work expands to meet the time and resources allocated to it.
So why bother consulting at all? Why not leave it to the councillors whom the electorate voted in because they believed they would make their case for them and accurately reflect what their priorities were?
Which councillor will have the courage (the political naivety) to stand up and say he/she has no idea what the voters in their ward want – and want first?
When they put themselves forward for a seat, they said on their election material that they were the best people for the job of making decisions in regard to what was the best for the community.
Are they now telling us they don’t know? That they haven’t a clue how the Council should spend its budget, which is not a pittance these days, but many millions of pounds.
Councillor Ian Dickson, Convener of Corporate Services, said: “Our residents are at the heart of what we do so it is essential that they have every opportunity to have their say and shape the early stages of the budget setting process.”
But the voters in his ward already have their say through him – and they have a vote which is vested in him when the time comes to set the Budget.
He should know whether or not people want the grass cut in public spaces, and how often they need their bins collected and how strong the street lamps should be to ensure their safety.
He should know what they think of the current state of the schools, roads, libraries and leisure centres and how important they are to us, since he should not be cut off from the community he serves.
Councillors should be listening, exchanging views and gathering intelligence (the kind of information they are looking for in this consultation) and joining in 21st century-style communication on social media.
Burgh Hall and SNP councillors McAllister, Conaghan and Dickson.
Not complaining about it, as Cllr Karen Conaghan did on social media last week, when she moaned about the time taken up by her council responsibilities last Wednesday.
Attending an SNP group meeting before a full Council meeting to discuss the Flamingo Land application in the Burgh Hall had kept her occupied until about 11pm.
She simply didn’t have time, she said, for communing with the people who really matter – the general public – on social media, which she and other colleagues, such as Caroline McAllister, repeatedly question the value of. And disparage the people who use it.
The days of letting a councillor know what you think and waiting weeks for an unsatisfactory reply went out with the old snail mail, envelopes, stamps and post boxes.
E mail is all about access to information and entertainment, which is what the public want and need if we are to retain our democratic status here. It’s only about porn if you want it to be about porn.
If councillors can’t stand the heat they should get out of the kitchen. They are no longer volunteers but apparatchiks who are well-paid for what they do and so they should get on with it and stop the crocodile tears.
Cllr Dickson and his cronies should already have feedback on the Council’s performance from talking to residents in his ward.
He should know whether parents (and children) are content with education provision and all the other services they rely on. If the schools are any good – or big enough to accommodate them.
If he doesn’t then he should not be a councillor.
He thinks: “Priority-based engagement gives our residents a stronger voice, and also gives officers valuable early insight into what our communities see as most important before savings are suggested.”
The words “savings suggested” in this announcement are a clear warning that the SNP have already decided that there will be more and more cuts in services.
He added: “This information will help focus savings being considered in areas highlighted by citizens as less important to them.
“Balancing the budget is always a difficult process but when we come together next year to consider the options, they will be based on citizen engagement which will allow us to address the needs and priorities of our communities.
“This feedback will inform service design, planning and savings options for a number of years – not just one – so I would encourage all residents to participate in this important consultation when it opens in August.”
It is anticipated that this format for budget engagement will also build on citizens’ knowledge and understanding on the range of services provided by the Council, as well as the challenges faced when trying to balance the budget.
It is as plain as the nose of your face that there will be more Council cuts next year.
There is no mention at all of money being invested in expansion or improvement of services or in anything else the SNP have said in their smokescreen of propaganda spun out with the aid of their spin doctors.
The Council have announced that their “priority-based consultation” will replace the previous model of consulting on specific savings options in January each year, ahead of budget-setting in March.
Engagement with the public will include focus groups events in communities across West Dunbartonshire with the consultation opening on August 19 and residents having the opportunity to contribute their views until September 27.
It was newspapers which first had that not very bright idea of setting up focus groups to find out what their readers wanted and secure their future. They are now toast.
A report detailing the findings of this expensive waste of time and money will be reported to councillors in November before the budget is officially set in February.