Investment in education, flood defences and economic regeneration will be key areas of focus in Scottish Borders Council’s forthcoming budget – which will include a freeze on Council Tax for the ninth successive year.
The local authority will set its revenue and capital budgets for 2016/17 on February 11 against a challenging financial background.
As well as approving the budget for the forthcoming financial year, the Council will set out its provisional revenue financial plans to 2020/21 and its capital proposals to 2025/26.
The views of Borders residents on the budget have been taken into consideration via a new online portal called Dialogue, which was set up to allow them to offer ideas on how the Council could do things differently to save money. This feedback has been used to help set the priorities within the budget.
Commenting on the budget plans, Council Leader, Councillor David Parker explained: “Scottish Borders Council recognises the financial challenges faced by residents and is striving to support them by retaining vital services while ensuring the Council Tax remains affordable.
“Through consultation with the public, as well as a range of plans through our Corporate Transformation programme, we are looking at ways of doing things differently in order to address a potential funding gap of £29.0m caused by pressures on public funding combined with increased demands on Council services.
“At the same time, we remain focused on delivering continued investment in education, are committed to health and social care integration in partnership with NHS Borders, and economic development through encouraging people and businesses to consider relocating to the Borders.
“The quality of life in terms of high quality education and health care, low crime rates and access to affordable housing in the Borders is excellent, and we must find a way of ensuring the budget is allocated to build on those strengths so the region can continue to prosper in the years ahead.
“Due to our robust financial planning process and long term planning approach to setting our budget, we are in a much better position than what we might have been given the economic climate.”
Headline items in the proposed budget will include:
· Freeze on Council Tax for the 9th successive year - The Council Tax in the Borders, with a band D equivalent of £1,084 per annum, therefore remains the 4th lowest in mainland Scotland
· Maintaining the number of teachers in Borders schools at 1,072 FTE - the same number as in 2015, with a projected pupil teacher ratio of 13.7:1
· Passing on £5.3m to be paid via the NHS budget to the new Health and Social Care Partnership established on the 1 April 2016 - this money will be used to meet existing service pressures, expand services to improve outcomes for older people, join up services more effectively and fund the public sector share of the costs of introducing the living wage for all private and voluntary sector care providers. This funding is the Borders’ share of £250m of funding made available by the Scottish Government to Health and Social Care Partnerships next year.
As in previous years, the Council will deliver the savings required in the budget for 2016/17 through a structured Corporate Transformation programme designed to ensure the authority is modernised and more efficient. This includes using modern technology to streamline ways of working and joining-up services more effectively both within the organisation and with Community Planning Partners to improve outcomes for Borders residents.
As the Council makes changes to its structure and delivers improvements in service provision it is inevitable there will be an impact on staffing levels. In the next financial year, the Council estimates a reduction of up to 130 posts in a number of areas. This is very much an estimated figure based on average salaries and it is likely to be far less. The Council aims to minimise the impact of these required savings on its existing workforce and there are comprehensive plans in place to deliver this.
One of the ways the Council aims to do this will be through the ‘People Planning’ process which aims to support managers to consider the current workforce make-up, think about where they will be in the coming years and plan ahead to manage changes effectively.
The Council has also been preparing for potential staff reductions by holding approximately 300 vacancies, and this, alongside a natural staff turnover level of 9.77%, will all contribute to a managed reduction of the workforce without impacting on existing staff wherever possible.
Once the People Planning Review has concluded, if there is a requirement to consider Early Retirement and Voluntary Severance (ER/VS) in any section or department of the Council, staff in that area will be invited to apply if they wish to do so.
Councillor John Mitchell, Depute Leader of SBC with responsibility for Finance, explained: “These are particularly difficult financial times with more demands being placed on Council services than ever before. As a result, it is a fundamental part of the Council’s business to become more streamlined, efficient and do things differently, which in turn provides quality services to the public.
“Once again, we feel that we are putting forward a set of budget proposals which sets out a significant investment in areas which are aligned to our priorities. In addition, we have also set out areas where we can work more efficiently and make significant savings, whilst providing a more modernised way of working.
“We continue to welcome engagement with the public on the many challenges that face the Council and would encourage people to continue to share their views through the channels available, including our online Dialogue tool.”