A raft of proposed cuts to council services and facilities were rejected by councillors today as the local authority approved its budget.
The predicted budget shortfall of £9.7 million was instead made up with a range of policy and efficiency savings, as well as a council tax rise of 4.79 per cent to raise an extra £2.3m.
Among council officers’ proposed cuts, which were rejected by elected members, was the controversial removal of paid-for instrument tuition.
Protesters gathering outside Midlothian House before and during the council meeting earlier today urged councillors to drop this proposal. Hundreds of pupils turned up with their instruments and placards to make their feelings known.
Speaking about this proposal at the meeting, council leader Derek Milligan (Lab) said: “We have heard loud and clear from youngsters the value they place on this.”
He also called on all Midlothian councillors from all parties to work together to press the Scottish Government for fairer council funding allocations, particularly given that Midlothian is currently the fastest growing local authority area in Scotland.
Other proposed cuts that were dropped included – closing Midlothian’s only public bowling green, Buccleuch Bowling Green; ending free swimming lessons during school holidays; removing the Active Schools Team; closing Gorebridge Leisure Centre; closing Newtongrange Leisure Centre; closing Danderhall Leisure Centre; the closure of all of Midlothian’s public toilets; the closure of Penicuik Recycling Centre; ending all gala day support; the cessation of the Midlothian Community Policing Team; the closure of all non-hub libraries; and ending free P4 swimming lessons.
However, fee increases for council services of almost five per cent and savings from the transformation programme, change programme, operational savings, cross cutting review savings, were approved by councillors.
Savings and other measures to increase income which have been agreed include reductions in senior management, closing Vogrie golf course, reducing grass cutting and shrub bed maintenance, reducing cleaning in non-school buildings, stopping the taxi card scheme, increasing car parking charges, reducing the budget for school transport, and ending funding for the community safety and healthy lifestyle development teams.
SNP councillor Kelly Parry criticised Cllr Milligan for taking triumph in removing the proposed music tuition cuts, given there has been a 32 per cent drop off in the uptake of the service in Midlothian since the introduction of charges in last year.
She added: “I want to extend thanks and pride to the children taking part in the demonstration today.
“It was incredible to see. Indeed my own two children are taking part this morning.
“Music is a cultural tradition in Midlothian. I think it’s a very valuable thing.”
Cllr Parry also called the Labour group “deplorable” for “playing politics” by spreading fear ahead of the budget meeting when discussing the proposals to cut many services and facilities across the county.
The Conservatives called for a cross party group to look at possible efficiency savings to ensure the council is not in the same position every year when deciding its budget.
Councillor Andrew Hardie (Con) said: “It is time that waste was properly tackled. We need smart ways of working to help the council’s hard-pressed and highly-valued council employees.”
In a dramatic budget vote in the chamber, the SNP proposal to defer a budget decision today for further discussion was rejected by 11 votes to six, while the Conservatives proposal was rejected by 12 votes to five.
The Labour budget proposal brought a six each tie, with Provost Peter Smaill’s casting vote leading to the approval of the Labour proposal, setting Midlothian Council’s budget for the forthcoming financial year.
Commenting about the protest outside Midlothian House against the proposed end of paid-for music tuition, EIS General Secretary Larry Flanagan said: “The high number of parents and pupils who turned out in support of the demonstration today shows the strength of feeling in the Midlothian community, and its belief that all children should have access to music tuition.
“Learning music benefits young people in terms of their self-confidence, and in their ability to work both independently or as part of a larger group.”