East Lothian councillors agree emergency action on finances which will ‘not be without pain’

Tuesday August 29th 2023

East-Lothian-Council


Written by Local Democracy Reporter, Marie Sharp

East Lothian councillors today gave the green light to emergency measures to plug a £14.5m budget gap as they were warned the actions would ‘not be without pain’.

Underused and understaffed public buildings, including libraries and public toilets, are expected to close while community funding grants are suspended and a recruitment freeze introduced across the local authority.

Applications to the Scottish Welfare Fund will be accepted for extreme cases only from September 1st while capital projects which have not had funds committed will be put on hold including work on East Saltoun Community Hall, Aberlady Primary School, East Linton Primary School and Haddington Sheriff Court building which was due to be turned into a joint council/police hub.

A virtual meeting of the council was told the local authority needs to find £71 million in additional funds over the next five years to meet service needs.

Councillors also gave the go ahead to officers taking budget cuts proposed to cover the anticipated £27m gap in next year’s budget to public consultation including a ‘significant council tax increase.”

A report to councillors said: “Assuming the delivery of planned savings, to close this gap by council tax charges alone would require an increase by at least 32% in 2024/25 in order for a balanced budget to be set.

“In order to minimise the potential burden on council tax payers, further options to decrease expenditure and/or increase income generation have been developed by officers. The public will be asked to provide their views on the range of options to close the financial gap including the possibility of a significant council tax increase through a public consultation.”

The council’s head of finance Sarah Fortune told councillors the immediate measure proposed to tackle this year’s budget deficit were temporary warning they would not be sustainable over the long term.

She pointed out the current debt did not include major additional projects which had come into focus this year after the presence of unsafe concrete materials in Preston Lodge High School, Prestonpans, the Brunton Theatre in Musselburgh and Loch Centre, Tranent, had led to closures of parts of the buildings

Councillors were due to hear an urgent report on the school’s required repairs in private at the end of today’s meeting.

However the costs for all three buildings are expected to be put before councillors at their October meeting with Ms Fortune warning elected members would have to make difficult decisions.

She told them: “Council will need to make decisions about what is proposed and council will need to set affordability parameters for what it can and cannot bring forward.”

Councillors agreed the immediate measure put forward by officers along with the changes to the Scottish Welfare Fund and public consultation on additional cuts next year.

Ms Fortune told them: “We will do everything we can to mitigate these measures but it is going to be hard and not without pain.”

Councillors raised concerns about the impact of reducing accessibility to the Scottish Welfare Fund and closure of public buildings as well as the impact on cuts.

Council leader Norman Hampshire said cross party leaders and council officers had sat down with deputy First Minister Shona Robison last week to present her with the issues the local authority faces as it continues to meet growth targets set by the Scottish Government.

He said: “The closure of buildings and reduction in services is the reality we are facing.”

“We have been asked to deliver 10,500 homes in three years. We must slow down the growth or stop it altogether.”

Councillor Andy Forrest, Labour, added: “East Lothian is one of the top three local authority areas in Scotland for growth but in the bottom three for funding from national government.”

Conservative group leader Lachlan Bruce also called for a stop to growth in the county unless more funding is provided, a move backed by Scottish Greens councillor Shona McIntosh who suggested taking a stand against additional housing.

Councillor Lyn Jardine, SNP group leader, agreed the council needs more funding and urged fellow councillors to make the case for the county to both UK and Scottish Governments.

Councillors unanimously backed the emergency measures proposed to reduce the budget gap.

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