Midlothian Council has decided to dip into its reserves to fund Christmas lights this year – after officers had recommended that the annual funding be removed.
This is the second year running that Christmas lights funding has been given a reprieve. Instead of removing the funding last year, officers were asked to conduct a consultation with communities and submit a report to the council. Councillors heard the report on Tuesday but rejected council officers’ recommendation to cease funding due to the local authority’s current financial position.
A cross-party group will now meet to discuss setting-up local area committees.
A supplementary estimate of up to the £70,000 cost, as stated in the report, was approved for one year only. Local groups will also be asked to look at ways of reducing that cost this Christmas.
The officers’ report followed a consultation with the 13 communities which receive Christmas lights from the council. In the report many communities noted the difficulty they would have in finding funding to keep the festive lights in their areas.
Councillor Jim Muirhead (Lab), who proposed rejecting the proposals to remove the funding, said: “This is a more complex issue than indicated by the paper here.
“The resource spent on Christmas lights within communities across Midlothian differs wildly.
“I know we have consulted with the communities, including my own in Gorebridge who say they can’t do it. It’s not that they don’t value it they are just raising money for other things at the moment.
“It comes down to what the local priorities are.
“Some communities that have considerable council funding towards the Christmas lights do not have anything like the contributions other communities have towards gala days and other events like that.
“Resources are becoming more and more limited. It’s quite important that the decisions on the priorities for communities are taken closer to communities.
“We think the best way to resolve that would be to set-up ward committees with councillors and other local bodies involved in some way.
“I’m not sitting at this point with all the answers as to how that would work.
“I suggest we set-up a cross-party working group to bring forward proposals on how we could set-up local area committees and how they could contribute towards participatory budgeting and ask communities how we minimise the current budget.”
The council’s head of finance Gary Fairley warned councillors that this would mean taking a supplementary estimate from the reserves, causing a “knock-on effect to the budget”.
Cllr Catherine Johnstone (SNP) said: “We need to take come civic pride in making sure that towns and villages in Midlothian look nice and provide Christmas cheer.
“I don’t think we should look on this as a cost but as an investment in the well-being of our communities.”
The cross party support for his proposals led Cllr Muirhead to add: “I think we have got a combined will here. We all want the communities to prioritise what they want.”
Council leader Derek Milligan discussed taking funds from other areas to give to the area committees so they can decide how best to spend the money in their ward.
Cllr Margot Russell spoke of how modern technology could be used to cut Christmas lights costs by “super-imposing” them onto buildings.
Cllr John Hackett (Lab) added: “I hope with community groups being more involved they will have a greater appreciation of the challenges that this council faces.”
Ricky Moffat, head of commercial operations, told councillors that his department can supply and provide Christmas lights to the same standard as last year, adding: “The door to engaging with communities is open.”
The current funding for Christmas lights across the county varies, with Bonnyrigg receiving the most at £20,955, whilst Bilston receives the least, £805.