NOTEBOOK BY BILL HEANEY
Wednesday, March 1, is an important day at West Dunbartonshire Council, where the chief officials will present to councillors – the members elected by the public last May – a report on the key issues relating to the budget for the next financial year.
For people of religion [a subject much discussed in high places this week] today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. It is seen as a period of austerity to mark the 40 days and nights Jesus Christ spent in the desert in penance and prayer.
This was to compensate for all the evil – “dark night has come down on this rough spoken world, where the banners of darkness are boldly unfurled,” says the hymn – that is done here on earth.
Lent used to be a period when people who considered themselves sinners wore sackcloth and ashes on their backs and went to church daily to repent their sins.
Or made sacrifices which involved giving up some of those things that were dear to them for at least six weeks until Easter.
People gave up smoking and drinking alcohol and children promised to stay off sweets, for example.
However, the penance these people did was voluntary, out of regret for what they had done or the goodness of their hearts.
The same cannot be said of the sanctions that are about to be imposed on the community of West Dunbartonshire. The residents here are undeserving of having no jobs; being forced to use food banks; not being able to heat their homes; being unable to gain admission to over-stretched hospitals …
And this will not last for a mere six weeks. It will be like this for years to come in this officially deprived community which will be even more deprived as we set out on our journey through the rest of this century, which will see change as it has never been witnessed before.
Nicola Sturgeon, RIGHT, has gone from Bute House. She has left Scotland in the lurch with so many of her promises. Nicola Sturgeon was a Me First leader, self made in the image of Margaret Thatcher. She was never a feminist as she claimed and Scotland is up to its armpits in debt. It was all about Nicola.
Council services and jobs are on the line in Church Street, where the elected members will set the new council tax rates, and approve the capital spending plans.
Capital spending covers money spent on new items and large projects while revenue spending relates to wages and expenses and payments for services, to which the council is already committed. Housekeeping might be a better word for it.
Inevitably, if there are going to be spending cuts, they will mostly come out of the revenue budget. Major projects such as the restoration and refurbishment of Glencairn House in the High Street, which will cost £ millions, could escape the axe.
Councillors will also be asked by Provost Douglas McAllister, LEFT, who will chair the meetings, to agree that a report will be brought to a future meeting of the Corporate Services Committee to agree the West Dunbartonshire Leisure Trust management fee for the next year.
This means that significant jobs and services connected with the Leisure Trust are in jeopardy. Much pleasure and recreation will require to be binned, and it may never return.
The provisional Local Finance Settlement from the SNP Scottish Government does not make good reading for West Dunbartonshire, and the initial analysis of this settlement indicates only a small detrimental impact on the Council’s budget gap, which runs to more than £20 million.
The council were advised in December that the main reason for this impact was that the funding assumption previously reported was a “flat cash” settlement.
However, after allowing for new policy commitments, the settlement was marginally worse.
Directors of Finance are permitted to raise questions of the Scottish Government, and this year the number of these who did ask exceeded 100, which reflects the complexity of the settlement and the need for it to be closely scrutinised and checked.
This included the reinstatement of £32.8 million of funding which Holyrood had previously provided for the 2021/22 Teacher’s Pay Award.
But this too was removed from the provisional settlement by the Scottish Government without consultation with COSLA, the umbrella body for councils, and although it is slightly more favourable than flat cash, it is still not a level of funding that reflects inflationary increases.
Therefore it still remains a real terms cut to local government funding which requires the Council to identify savings options to bridge the budget gap.
I noticed today in a question posed on the council help line by a member of the public that some people are unhappy about the fact that they have not been given the fine detail of the proposed cuts.
Some of these proposed cuts I have written about previously in this column, but not all of them since the list is extensive as you will discover if you turn up at the Burgh Hall at 4 pm on Wednesday next.
Whether you will hear or see what is being said and by whom is another matter altogether.
You can leave the sack cloth and ashes at home, but prepare to suffer and look out for yourself or that council axe could fall on your head and you could be thrown out before you know it.
The exact figures for this Budget leave an estimated gap of £21.142 million and provide a range of options for councillors consideration to close that gap.
Based on the updated 2023/24 draft budget (reflecting this report), what’s known as the Prudential Reserve level has been calculated as £5.641 million.
This reflects 3% of net expenditure and is a 1% increase to the prudential target which previously stood at 2%.
The Council agreed to fund this increase from the one-off benefit generated by the Service Concessionary Financial Flexibility.
The amount needed to meet the commitment to increase the prudential target to 3% has increased from £0.392 million from £1.750 million to £2.142 million.
This is opaque, boring stuff which gives me the opportunity to introduce some humour at this point, although budget statements are no laughing matter.
For example: Q: Mrs McGlumper, why did your son become an economist? A: Mrs McGlumper: Because he did not have the personality to be an accountant.
The report, which the guys at school who got three of gardening on a Friday afternoon – that’s one of the “activities” that look like coming back as education per se will be available on just four days a week – will have some difficulty getting to grips with. Who wouldn’t?
They will be struggling too with the Service Concessionary Financial Flexibility one-off benefit which would be used to fund the Council’s 2022/23 projected overspend, which was £1.5 million in December, but has increased by £0.643 million to £2.143 million.
Old Maths teachers of mine such as Ben Ferry and Jack Gilroy will be oozing pride (not) up there in heaven. No wonder I preferred Latin lessons.
It was also agreed to earmark £1 million to provide a further £0.250 million cost of living support each year for the next four years with this to be funded from the Council’s general reserves, including the
transfer of the balance of £0.990 million from the Service Concessionary one-off benefit.
There is a Voluntary Redundancy and Early Retirement Reserve Decrease; a Smoothing Fund for Three Year Service Transformation Programme; Scottish Government Pay Award and a Cost of Living Support Increase to be taken into account.
Why don’t the Council just stick to emptying the bins, opening the baths and libraries, sweeping the streets and leave the complicated stuff to more senior, skilled, well-heeled and sophisticated bodies? It worked in the past.
And so it goes on. The couple on the Brucehill or Bonhill bus, checking their receipts from the supermarket, could never get to know what all this Maths means, even if they had been able to get a bus in the first place.
A circular outlines that the Scottish Government will work in partnership with local government to implement the budget and the joint priorities in return for the full funding package worth £13.2 billion which includes:
- £260 million to support the local government pay deal and additional
funding to ensure that payment of Scottish Social Services Council
fees for the Local Government workforce which will continue to be
made on a recurring basis. £72.5 million increase to the General Revenue Grant.
- £105 million to give effect to the devolution of Non-Domestic Rates
Empty Property Relief.
- Maintained key in-year transfers worth over £1 billion and added a
further net £102 million of resource to protect key shared priorities
particularly around education and social care.
- £50 million capital to help with the expansion of the Free School
Whilst the 2023/24 settlement has resulted in a small cash increase it is still considered prudent to maintain an assumption of flat cash in the best case and mid-range scenario and a 1% reduction in funding in the worst case scenario. This assumption will be kept under review throughout 2023/24.
As the setting of Council Tax is subject to a political decision (haud the jaickets), no assumptions have been made about any increase in 2023/24 or future years. However a modest growth in the Council Tax base has been assumed over the next five years.
This exercise is becoming more and more complicated. Working out the returns from a three cross tanner double at the bookie’s is light years away from this cerebral stuff, which tells us that each 1% increase in Council Tax would generate approximately £0.383 million in income and increase the weekly bill to a Band D taxpayer by £0.26. Rises in Council Tax between 3% and 12% would generate a bigger increase in weekly Council Tax bills.
But … and there’s always a but is there not … this information is provided for illustrative purposes only.
Officers have identified a further range of savings options for member consideration. The voting public do not have a say in this. Unless they make sure to vote for the winner at the polls. A number of the saving options submitted for member consideration have multiple options contained within them, which means there is a higher or lower value associated with them.
The total value of the ‘higher value’ saving options is a recurring saving of £10.040 million in 2023/24 rising to £11.969 million in 2024/25 and £11.994 million in future years.
Officers have also identified management adjustments which do not result in either potential redundancies or changes to policy and can be implemented without political approval. The total value of these management adjustments is a recurring saving of £1.232 million in 2023/24 declining slightly to £1.020 million in future years.
Then there’s the Use of Reserves – On 21 December 2022 the Council agreed to earmark £6 million from the one-off service concessionary financial flexibility to establish a smoothing fund to support a three year service transformation programme. There is an option to use this fund to help deliver a balanced 2023/24 budget.
However, it should be noted that this is an option which is one-off in nature and use of it does not reduce the cumulative budget gap in future years. It would also not be prudent to use it all in one year as it was established to support transformation over a three year period.
This is the equivalent of a parent coming up with pocket money for a child but warning her not to spend it all in the one shop. For the purposes of illustration it has been assumed that the £6 million will be used evenly over the three year period.
Budget Gap After Measures to Balance Budget: If Members agreed to all the proposals noted within this report, and the even distribution of the £6 million smoothing fund over the three years, there is a remaining budget gap of £1.303 million in 2023/24. Note though this is before the application of any Council Tax increase.
If members agree to these assumptions, a rise in Council Tax of 3.4% would be required to deliver a balanced budget. Members however may wish to balance the budget through a different combination of saving options, use of the smoothing fund and Council Tax increases.
However it should be noted that, whilst there are a number of savings options built into these figures that could be reversed. Accepting them now will assist with the continued challenging position in future years, especially as use of the smoothing fund is one-off in nature and, therefore, only delays the need to identify longer term recurring savings.
It is normal practice for the Council, as part of the budget setting process, to approve the West Dunbartonshire Leisure Trust Management Fee consideration having been given to the Trust’s business plan by the Corporate Services Committee.
However, there is a savings option which proposes reducing the Trust’s 2023/24 management fee and, consequently, it is not possible for the final fee to be included for consideration as part of this overall budget report. Once a decision has been made regarding the savings option, the fee can be confirmed.
It should be noted that an indicative sum based on last year’s fee of £4.16 million has been included within the base budget calculations for 2023/24 with an additional £0.200 million for inflationary rises and £0.333 million for the 2022/23 pay award.
As such it is considered there is sufficient expenditure already built into the budget to cover any agreed management fee. A report will be brought forward to a future meeting of the Corporate Services Committee to agree the revised 2023/24 management fee.
The potential staffing implications are shown within the savings options put forward by the chief officials and will be subject to consultation processes where appropriate and managed in accordance with the Council’s Switch Policy (Organisational Change). Given the scale of the savings, a voluntary release [redundancy, early retirement] programme has been underway for several months.
While the aim is to secure sufficient numbers of volunteers to allow achievement of agreed savings without delay, any shortfall in this area would necessitate progression to consideration of compulsory redundancy. Discussions with the trades unions have begun on this possibility and appropriate and equality proofed selection criteria will be shared in due course.
Some of the capital plan projects in the report have an assumption of match-funding and grant funding from Scottish Government and other agencies. There is a risk that some or all of these are not received. The business cases for these projects will require to be updated as funding becomes clearer and Members may be required to consider the financial affordability of continuing with the projects.
The views of all Chief Officers have been requested on this report and feedback incorporated in them. Discussions on the issues in it have been had with the Trade Unions and a summary copy of the saving options was provided to Trade Unions, political group leaders and the workforce.
The report states that proper budgetary control and sound financial practice are cornerstones of good governance and support the Council and officers to pursue the five strategic priorities of the Council’s Strategic Plan.
The list of suggested savings options from the council’s chief officers is long and difficult to deal with for IT amateurs like me. However, it makes for tastier reading and, in almost line after line of it, there is much to talk about.
Let’s forget about Chief Officer Amanda Graham’s suggestions for cuts since we already posted them on The Democrat in another Notebook dealing with them.
However, her recommendation that the Council should generate income through commercialization opportunities seems crazy when you consider that that there are acres of square retail footage in our high streets and main streets crying out to be let but which no one is prepared to take up.
One of the main arguments for spending £16 million on renovating the Burgh Hall was that it would help to increase footfall in the nearby High Street and town centre. It didn’t.
Maybe Amanda – or the now retired chief officer of unhappy memory, Joyce White – had in mind of course that fleet of new electric vehicles which has been lying unused and rusting in the car park at Aurora House since the former SNP administration bought the cars before doing their homework on them.
Ms Graham also recommends a reduction in the number of hours Clydebank Town Hall and Museum is open to the public. It seems what’s on display there holds little or no appeal to the public, and it’s become a costly white elephant. Who would have guessed it?
Reduce, remove and replace are the most used words in her list of savings options.
Chief Officers Angela Wilson, Amanda Graham, Laura Mason and Joyce White.
Laura Mason, the Chief Education Officer, sounds like Mrs Thatcher the Milk Snatcher only even more stern with her suggestion that the council should remove breakfast club provision in all primary schools.
Other swingeing cuts that Ms Mason suggests are to reduce the number of learning assistants, scrap free swimming for primary 4 pupils and reduce the number of times grass cutting jettisoned or completely abandoned in school grounds.
And, of course, Ms Mason is the one who come up with the much already publicised four-day week for schools when education will be abandoned for “activities”. She can’t be serious about this, and I think the responses already received from parents to the letter she sent out to them about it underscores this. Gardening is what some of the not so bright pupils used to do in my day on a Friday afternoon. But then some of them did nothing for the rest of the week.
Another cracking proposal from the indefatigable Ms Mason is the suggestion that the number of council’s senior early learning and childcare team should be reduced by six. More redundancies and unfilled posts.
In an era when teachers are being besieged by unruly and violent pupils in the whiteboard jungle that is our schools these days – there was news this morning that a teacher had been stabbed to death by a pupil in his classroom – another chief officer, Peter Barry, has suggested that the anti-social behaviour service should be reduced by removing back-shift/weekend provision and limited to phone provision.
Perhaps the Council should change its motto to “Give us a ring”. They could be like the supermarkets and introduce unmanned checkouts. That way, they would never have to speak to anyone.
Mr Barry suggests that the communities team numbers should be slashed by half and services associated with it should be merged to save money, and that the level of funding to community councils should be reduced.
That uproar about official wining and fine dining with contractors in swanky hotels, restaurants and golf courses must have brought pause for thought since Laurence Slavin, the chief finance officer, thinks the time is appropriate to reduce the size of the council’s audit and Fraud team.
It is recommended that volunteering services and even the Clydebank Asbestos Group, which does so much good work, should receive significant cuts in funding.
The Provost’s Hospitality Fund will face the axe which means that the likelihood of civic receptions for people taking part in events, such as bowling tournaments, won ‘t be entertained any more.
It seems likely that people attending Remembrance Sunday events will be restricted to a sausage roll and a cup of tea rather than a dram or two of whisky.
Chief Officer Gail Macfarlane has suggested that school crossing patrols – lollipop men and women – should be reduced or scrapped altogether.
She suggests a review of the charging policy for the care of gardens scheme or for it to be withdrawn altogether and that weekend litter collections at places such as parks and town centres should be scrapped.
It looks like it will be Dirty Old Dunbartonshire for some time to come if charging for garden waste collection is introduced – just imagine the fly dumping that will take place if that happens – and that grass cutting, bin clearing, litter collection and street sweeping could face a similar fate.
Chief Officer Angela Wilson reckons there should be a review of the use of the Municipal Buildings to identify alternative uses or commercial opportunities.
Ms Wilson has also recommended a two-week Christmas close-down “bar delivery of essential services”.
Santa Claus please note this last item. There may be no money here to feed the reindeer.
Wouldn’t it be great if people, taxpayers, knew how much was spent just on tribunals, in mental health settings. Total waste of time and money, taking away peoples human rights for a living is very lucrative. So that is where money is wasted. Millionaires at the taxpayers expense. Literally.