South Ayrshire Councillors today (3 March) agreed their 'most difficult budget' ever – including cuts to a number of non-essential services – in order to balance the books in light of the harsh finance settlement from the Scottish Government.
Councillors took the decision to protect essential or 'life and limb' services as they agreed a revenue budget of £187.1 million – excluding spend on Health and Social Care – and a capital budget of £49.8 million for 2016/17.
To deliver a balanced budget and maintain the Council Tax freeze in line with the requirements of the Government settlement, Councillors today agreed an additional £3.2 million in savings for 2016/17.
This is over and above the £6.2 million previously approved – taking account of adjustments agreed today and excluding those approved for the South Ayrshire Health and Social Care Partnership.
They delegated funding of £65.9 million to the South Ayrshire Health and Social Care Integrated Joint Board, which will be added to the £5.8 million provided by the Scottish Government via the NHS to meet desired outcomes for social care.
Councillors also approved the use of uncommitted reserves of £3.2 million, which will be used – in the main – to replace capital grant funding that has been removed from the Scottish Government finance settlement.
Further use of the Council's unallocated reserves of £14.6 million will be considered at future Council meetings, so decisions can be based on where the funding is needed most and where it will have the maximum impact – rather than being used solely to make up the Scottish Government shortfall.
The additional savings agreed by Councillors today, which cover the period 2016-2018, include:
- Reduce Additional Support Needs school assistants by 13 full-time posts – £200,000
- Reduce Additional Support Needs Homelink Service by 50% – £160,434
- Reduce opening hours at Alloway, Ballantrae, Carnegie, Forehill, Girvan, Maybole, Mossblown, Symington, Tarbolton and Troon libraries – £100,805
- Reduce music instruction service by two full-time posts – £84,000
- Transfer Dam Park Stadium to an alternative provider, while ensuring continued community access – £70,432
- Reduce revenue contribution to Ayr Renaissance – £60,000
- Increase the price of Golf South Ayrshire season tickets by a further 7.5% – £61,398
- Reduce civic support – £54,000
- Increase sport and leisure prices by a further 5% – £51,455
- Increase the cost of school meals by 5% – £49,000
- Closure of Coylton, Dailly and Dundonald libraries, with continued book lending services from the mobile library and working with communities to provide alternative wi-fi provision – £47,263
- Reduce seasonal gardeners by four full- time posts – £39,000
- Reduce seasonal waste management employees for beaches and shorefront – £38,000
- Reduce litter pickers by two full-time posts – £36,000
- Increase the cost of lets for outdoor pitches, games halls and rooms in schools by 15% – £30,950
- Close customer contact centre at John Pollock Centre, reduce staffing levels and relocate to the Wallace Tower – £20,000
- Remove free support for gala days/events – £15,000
- Reduce opening hours at Maybole Civic Amenity Site – £12,500.
This takes the total amount of savings agreed for 2016/17 (excluding Health and Social Care) to almost £10 million – the highest amount of savings the Council has had to deliver in any one financial year.
Councillor Bill McIntosh, Leader of South Ayrshire Council, said: "This has been, without a doubt, the most difficult budget we've ever had to agree as a Council, and it's totally unacceptable that it's our people and communities who have to face the impact of the deliberate decision made by the Scottish Government to hit Council funding so harshly.
"The combined impact of the reduction and restrictions in the Scottish Government funding, rising costs and increasing – and sometimes unprecedented – demand for our services is that the gap between the money we have and the money we need continues to grow.
"And given how hard we've worked to transform the Council's financial position, it would not be responsible for us to simply give a knee-jerk reaction and fill that gap with our unallocated reserves. It would just undermine everything we've been working to achieve. Instead, we will ensure that our reserves are utilised wisely and effectively.
"That means we can no longer avoid making difficult choices and hard decisions – decisions which, in normal circumstances, we would not take. However, we cannot live beyond our means and we need to do all we can to protect and sustain essential services – the ones that really matter in terms of life or limb – for the future.
"All of our Councillors, regardless of political persuasion, were elected to serve our communities and do the very best they can for them – not cut services or close facilities. Yet this is the stark reality we've had to face today as the impact of the Scottish Government's decision starts to bite.
"We have worked to safeguard services – and jobs – as much as possible. However, as I advised the Scottish Government when we had to accept its punitive settlement, it's our people and communities who will bear the brunt of its actions and that has certainly been borne out by the budget we've had to agree today.
"This Council is taking responsibility to manage the irresponsible decisions of the Scottish Government and we will make the savings demanded of us and balance our budget despite the barriers that have been put in our way. And our people and communities deserve to know why we've had to take these actions."
Councillor John McDowall, Depute Leader of the Council, added: "Councils increasingly have to juggle finances and service delivery to accommodate the whims of the Scottish Government. More and more duties are being placed on Councils all the time, without the full funding needed to take on additional roles and responsibilities, and we don't have limitless monies to support this.
"This leaves us in the impossible position of having to make cuts elsewhere – cuts that have a very real impact on the services we can offer and the facilities we can provide. This completely undermines all the hard work we've put in over the last four years to take a planned and measured approach to managing our money and delivering best value.
"In agreeing the budget today, we've worked to protect and preserve services as much as possible, while delivering the necessary savings to plug the funding gap. We've done this by looking at services and facilities that are not used as much as others; taking account of alternative provision; and considering the overall cost to the Council and the benefit to the community.
"We know this will affect our people and places, but we have, quite simply, had no choice and we'll continue to do everything we can to minimise the impact of these savings when introduced."
Councillor Robin Reid, Portfolio Holder for Resources and Performance, concluded: "Even with the challenges of our financial situation in recent years, we've managed to deliver efficient and effective budgets while managing our finances in a prudent and sensible way.
"That has allowed us to invest where it's needed most while maintaining a strong level of reserves – the bulk of which is allocated for repairs and renewals, investment in ICT or to support new ways of working.
"We've also been working on proposals for our unallocated reserves over recent months so these can be directed where needed most and where they will have the maximum impact. We've had to think long and hard about whether to abandon this approach and simply use our reserves to fill the funding gap created by the Scottish Government. However, that would essentially mean we've been held to ransom by Government and would not remotely benefit our communities in the same way.
"As tough as it's been to make the necessary decisions to balance the budget today, we've taken the only course of action open to us to protect the best interests of the people of South Ayrshire and that's what we'll continue to do, day in and day out."
The approval of the budget today takes the Council's overall capital investment programme to £152.5 million over the next five years. New projects added over this period include a new Sacred Heart Primary, Glenburn Primary, Ayr Grammar Primary and Nursery, road reconstruction and a new all-weather pitch at Carrick Academy.
Full details of the Council's budget decisions are available at www.south-ayrshire.gov.uk/budgeting.