West Lothian call for budget meeting with First Minister

Thursday January 20th 2022

West-Lothian-Civic-Centre

Written by Local Democracy Reporter, Stuart Sommerville

West Lothian Council is facing an additional £12.5m of cuts as a result of the Scottish Government’s draft budget, which the council leader described as “the worst settlement ever provided.”

Lawrence Fitzpatrick has joined the leaders of Scotland’s 32 local authorities in co-signing a letter calling for an urgent meeting with the First Minister to address the ‘unacceptable’ cuts to core funding for local councils.

The First Minister has now agreed to have a meeting with council leaders, after an initial rejection of a request for a meeting with Finance Minister Kate Forbes.

Head of Finance Donald Forrest told a meeting of the Executive that the county faces making savings of £12.5 million in 2022/23, saying: “This does mean the council is facing a very challenging position.”

He added that CoSLA pointed out in a letter to the Scottish Government and in its own “ reality document” of how the budget would affect council services: “It’s a bad deal for communities.”

Councils of all political stripes – including the SNP administration in Glasgow – have joined the CoSLA local authority umbrella group to criticise the budget.

It is estimated that between April 2007 and March 2023 West Lothian Council will have made budget savings of £151 million due to prolonged constraints in Scottish Government funding, which equates to over £1,832 per household in the county.

Councillor Fitzpatrick said: “Year on year cuts to funding for local authorities are severely impacting on the ability of councils to continue to deliver a balanced budget which protects local, public services.

“While Council Tax is important, it only accounts for about 20% of the council’s overall budget. The other 80% of our funding comes from the Scottish Government which is why the funding given to us by Holyrood is so critical to us and why the ongoing underfunding causes such challenges for the council.”

The cutbacks will hit such promised services as the roll-out of free school meals for all primary pupils, which was scheduled for later this year.

“Kicked into the long grass, ” said depute Labour leader Councillor Kirsteen Sullivan.

“This is the worst settlement ever provided,” said Councillor Fitzpatrick.

There were angry exchanges across the meeting as both Labour and Conservative group leaders turned on the SNP for failing to support a joint approach to the Scottish Office.

Councillor Fitzpatrick said: “We are incensed that councils are being short changed by the Scottish Government to the tune of £371m.

“It is also incredibly disappointing to hear the West Lothian SNP Group refuse to stand in solidarity with all other council leaders in Scotland, including their own SNP colleagues, and recognise that the Scottish Government is failing to provide fair funding to deliver services in our local communities.”

However, the SNP opposition in West Lothian challenged that criticism. Depute group leader Councillor Frank Anderson’s amendment pointed out that funding increased by £19m over last year and noted that since 2018/19 the council has received an additional £53m in revenue grant funding.

The council reserves have grown from £2m to £2,261,000. The amendment also called for the £261,000 to be set aside to help with the installation of linked smoke alarms by creating a team within the council’s Building Services department to work with Care and Repair Scotland for West Lothian.

Mr Forrest said that, in reality, the bulk of the new money was effectively ring fenced to provide specific new services. That means a reduction in real terms of the amount of money to spend on services the council already has to provide is £1.4m.

Mr Forrest’s report to the Executive said: “It is important to note that, within the provisional West Lothian allocation, there is £17.527 million of funding which relates to new additional expenditure commitments for 2022/23.

The SNP questioned the ring fencing of the budget, claiming that it would be around 5 or 6% of total council spending.

Councillor Fitzpatrick pointed out that English councils had been given funds to cover the increase in National Insurance costs.

Conservative group leader Councillor Damian Doran Timson said: “It’s an absolute disgrace that the government is not passing on the £2.5 m to cover National insurance increase. I’m sure even the SNP in West Lothian cannot defend this.”

Councillor Sullivan said that it had to be acknowledged that SNP councillors in Scotland had broken ranks because they knew the very real impacts of what the cuts would do to local communities.

Councillor Anderson said it was disappointing to hear phrases like “breaking ranks”.

He added “Let’s be realistic, the hypocrisy absolutely astounds me. Both parties which have spoken insisted that any Barnett Consequentials [Westminster grant funding to the Scottish Government} should be put into the NHS, Now it has, what are they saying. It shouldn’t have? If you want to take it off the NHS, then take it, but tell the people what you are doing.”

He branded CoSLA reality document “creative accounting.”

Councillor Anderson’s amendment was defeated by 11 votes to two.

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