Difficult choices as range of proposals put on the table

A solar solar farm, which Green councillor Ian Baxter hopes can generate revenue for Midlothian Council.
A solar solar farm, which Green councillor Ian Baxter hopes can generate revenue for Midlothian Council.

The SNP and Green Party’s amendments to Midlothian Council’s budget for 2017/18 were approved last week thanks to Provost Joe Wallace’s casting vote, as the local authority continues in its attempts to balance the books while still providing frontline services.

But the budget isn’t without controversy, with a petition set up immediately to fight the possible end of Christmas lights in Midlothian.

Dalkeith Christmas lights in 2016, which could now be under threat.

Dalkeith Christmas lights in 2016, which could now be under threat.

In 2017/18 Midlothian will get £148.6 million in general revenue funding and non-domestic rates, £4.3m less than the previous financial year, leaving the county with a £4.2m gap.

Although the proposals from officials are based on a three per cent increase in council tax, any decisions on rise, or the use of reserves to balance the budget, will be taken by councillors when they meet to set the budget on February 7. This would leave £5.3m in reserves.

In November, an updated assessment predicted difficult times ahead, with a projected budget shortfall rising to £40.9m by 2021/22. This budget is the first step in dealing with these eye-watering figures.

The budget calls for a number of reviews including flood prevention, the number of football pitches in Midlothian, existing PPP contracts, hanging baskets and flower beds, road maintenance, winter maintenance and the council’s contribution to the Pentland Hills.

Councillor Kelly Parry (SNP) said: “I’m sure that none of us woke up this morning actually wanting to take some of the saving proposals included in these documents.

‘‘But, after a staggering fall of more than nine per cent to the Scottish Government’s budget – £2.9 billion in real terms – plus Brexit, it’s clear that we will be tightening our belts against austerity for many years to come.”

The SNP and Green Party amendments saw some of the officers’ proposed cuts removed. This will see Penicuik Recycling Centre remain open, the retention of the Ring and Go taxi service, a withdrawal of the planned charging for music tuition in schools and a reduction of the proposed saving from a public toilet provision review from £100,000 down to £40,000.

Cllr Parry added: “The SNP amendment reflect the priorities of Midlothian residents who have overwhelmingly told us to protect vital services for the most vulnerable.

“Retaining services that are a lifeline to disabled people, protecting families and making Midlothian a safe and successful place to live, work and learn is key to the overall success of Midlothian.

“The closure of Penicuik Recycling Centre had the potential to cause environmental damage through increased vehicle use and fly-tipping and is an investment in our environment and communities.”

Although the long-planned removal of council funding for the Midlothian Police Community Action Teams (CAT) will still go-ahead, the amended budget will not take forward a proposed £30,000 cut to the council’s in-house Community Safety Team in 2017/18. It will also invest a further £30,000 in developing the Problem Solving Partnership working with police.

Labour had hoped that its amendment would be accepted to save the CAT teams, which will cease in April.

Labour planned to find the required £500,000 in the first year from a number of proposals including raising £258,000 in half year savings by axing six per cent of officers on salaries over £50,000.

Labour group leader Cllr Derek Milligan said: “This shows clearly where the 
money is coming from, it doesn’t hit other frontline services.

“It brings back a community action team that has seen its losses as catastrophic to what’s going on in our communities – windows being smashed cars being stolen, people seeing youngsters walking about doing what they want at times.”

His party’s budget amendment was beaten by the SNP/ Green amendment thanks to the provost’s casting vote following a nine-each tie.

The Green amendment includes a major programme of work by Midlothian Council, funded from the £4 million set aside for Business Transformation, to investigate and develop council owned renewable energy.

It comes three years after Cllr Baxter first proposed the idea.

He said: ““Investment in solar PV is once again becoming a worthwhile medium to long term investment. I therefore propose a major programme of work to investigate the possibly of large and small scale Solar PV farms of up to 50,000 panels, that’s 20 times the size of the one at Edinburgh College.

“I would hope to be looking at income into seven figures. But within my budget I’m taking into account contingency, conservative estimates of income and the length taken in planning, and therefore set a target of a minimum of £300,000 net income in 2018/19 with substantial increases thereafter.”

Cllr Jim Muirhead (Lab) said: “It’s important that we do back the green agenda. Not only is it the right thing to do as far as the environment is involved. It has the great potential of earning income for the council.”

Savings include the end of the council’s Garden Assistance programme saving £20,000, withdrawal of £36,000 from the Midlothian Business Partnership, charging for section 75 legal agreement monitoring to raise £30,000, external foster placements to save £332,000, a ten per cent increase in sports and leisure charges, reducing opening hours at 
leisure centres during quiet times, and the closure of Vogrie Golf Course to save £30,000.

Green councillor Ian Baxter said: “Realistically if we had time and without an election in a few months time we could have come to some agreement. There is a lot in the Labour group’s proposals that I like. When I look at the SNP budget I think it overlaps very much with my own proposals.”

He emphasised the importance of education attainment, praised the “lifeline” of the Ring and Go service and expressed his delight that the Penicuik Recycling Centre will remain open.