Budget set by dipping into savings

Midlothian House, where councillors met on Tuesday to decide the budget
Midlothian House, where councillors met on Tuesday to decide the budget

Midlothian Council has set its budget for the forthcoming year, using 20 per cent of uncommitted council reserves to help balance the books.

For the 2016/17 financial year Midlothian has avoided major cuts to services despite the Scottish Government’s 3.5 per cent cut to local authority funding, which has resulted in job losses and increased service charges elsewhere.

However, Labour are angry that the council-funded police team will be cut in half this year and abolished by 2017/18.

Council leader Catherine Johnstone (SNP) explained how Midlothian’s £7.6 million budget shortfall was met.

She said: “Just with careful financial budgeting, and we have had to use some reserves, £2.6 million. We have not just looked at trimming edges, we have looked at transforming the way we do business. To get improved outcomes for people, doing it differently.

“It has been difficult. Nobody wants to see increases to charges. Taking money out of people’s pockets isn’t an easy thing, it isn’t a pleasant thing. But we have to do it.

“We have anticipated things. So we have tried to manage the money in such a way that we were prepared.

“Other councils have not managed their budgets as well as we have over the years and they are having to take serious decisions about that just now.”

The council leader explained how she hopes to continue to tackle future budget shortfalls.

She said: “We are still going work a lot on preventative work, making sure elderly and frail people don’t have to go to hospital. Encourage people on the uptake of the flu vaccination for example. We are going to work better with the NHS on the transition from illness to wellness.

“So hopefully that will save money, that’s an investment in our future.

“Just working on better ways to help our people and hopefully the long term savings will be there.”

Councillors’ environmental improvement funds are to be cut from £13,000 to £10,000 annually. This will save £54,000. These are small pots of money which councillors can allocate to projects in their wards.

Currently there are two council-funded community police teams (MCAT). It is proposed that this service will be redesigned with police, fire and community safety partners, and the funding reduced by 50 per cent in 2017/18 to save £250,000.

The charge to uplift bulky items in Midlothian is to stay at £20. However, the first uplift of the year will no longer be free. Withdrawing the one free uplift annually per household will increase income to the council of around £62,000 in 2016/17.

A phased increase in Midlothian burial charges will see charges rise by 14 per cent annually over a three year period, increasing income to the council by £141,000. Tonezone’s monthly charge will rise by two per cent, while some evening classes will rise by five per cent.

The removal of the weekend out of hours service that deals with noise complaints is being withdrawn, saving £28,000.

Out-of-hours service to investigate domestic noise complaints at weekends is being withdrawn.

The decision will take effect from 31 March. The move will save £28,000.

The maximum price per hour to be cared for and supported at home, for residents under 65 years, is going up from £9.80 to £10.28, an increase of 4.9 per cent.

Councillor Johnstone added: “It’s my first budget as leader and it’s harder than I though it would be.

“It’s taken us a lot of time and discussion. And when I look through all the things that are happening, it affects every person in my family. So I don’t only have to account for other people but also my family. If I can explain it to my own family I can explain it to anybody. I kind of look at everyone in Midlothian as my extended family.”

The Midlothian Labour group leader Derek Milligan wanted the council to dip more into the reserves instead of making cuts, however his group’s amended budget was rejected.

He said: “This council is sitting with over £15 million in unallocated reserves.

“Given the uncertainty of the Scottish elections where people will have a clear choice between an SNP government committed to austerity and a Labour government prepared to avoid cuts by using powers to raise tax, it would be criminal to impose cuts which would once again hit the most vulnerable hardest.

“Removing 14 police officers from the streets of Midlothian is simply not acceptable to us. Increasing charges for pensioners using our centres is not acceptable to us.”