Rival budgets set for vote next week at Scottish Borders Council

Standing together at the last election, but miles apart on the budget, Tweeddale East councillors Stuart Bell and Shona Haslam.
Standing together at the last election, but miles apart on the budget, Tweeddale East councillors Stuart Bell and Shona Haslam.

Two rival financial budgets are due to go before Scottish Borders Council next week, one from the ruling administration and one from the opposition.

Both budgets were announced during separate press conferences at the council’s Newtown St Boswell’s HQ on Thursday 21 February, ahead of a full council meeting on 28 February.

One point of contention is the rise in council tax. The Tory/Independent ruling administration has announced it is planning on increasing council tax by 4%, while the SNP/Liberal Democrat opposition has revealed it would keep the increase to 3%, as was previously agreed by the council in December 2018.

Revealing her coalition’s budget, council leader Shona Haslam, who represents Tweeddale East, said: “We looked at lots of options around council tax. Obviously with the increase in income tax coming down from April 1st, we just felt that 4% was as far as can go, as opposed to the full 4.79% we could raise it.

“We had been at 3%, it was such a hard decision for us to bring it up to that 4%, but we just felt that without being able to do the workplace parking tax, or the tourist tax, that the increase would give us the flexibility to do the kind of things we want to do in the Borders without hitting people’s pockets too much.

“So 4.79%, we felt was going to be too much so we went for 4%, and that gives us the funding we need to be able to take forward the projects that we think are of benefit to the Borders.”

Meanwhile, leader of the opposition Stuart Bell, who also represents Tweeddale East, said that the SNP/Lib Dem budget would not increase council tax more than the previously agreed 3%.

This is despite the fact that the powers to increase council tax by up to 4.79% come directly from the SNP-led Scottish Government.

Explaining his position, he said: “We don’t think it’s necessary to increase council tax by the full amount and we need to put forward a prudent budget.

“The Conservative group have been going around for the last month saying that there’s a 5% cut in real terms to Scottish Borders Council’s budget, that is not true.

“It’s what they say, and it slips easily off the tongue, but if you look at the revenue support grant, which is the basic funding that is provided by the Scottish Government, for core services, you’ll see that this year it’s £167m. It was the same last year.

“But this year there’s £6m more for grants, largely for early learning and childcare, and something like £3m for non-domestic rates.

“I think the Scottish Government is giving us flat cash funding and giving money for specific services, and as a consequence, there’s £13m more in revenue, with just a 3% rise in council tax.”

The budgets further deviate on priority spending. The administration plans to use the extra council tax to accelerate the construction of a new high school in Hawick, provide £2.4m of extra spending for roads and pavements, invest in a new police community action team, and provide a £3m for extra care funding.

Meanwhile, the opposition want to spend £58m on flood scheme works, including Hawick, provide an extra £3.6m for waste management services, and put £9.2m into early learning and childcare.  

One area where the budgets are almost aligned is digital learning. While Shona Haslam’s Tory/Independent budget will see £16m spent over ten years to give every P6 to S6 school pupil an iPad, Stuart Bell’s opposition budget would see a smaller roll out of iPads at a cost of £11.4m.

The vote is unlikely to go the way of the opposition, due to the majority held by the Tory/Independent coalition, but some administration councillors disagree strongly with the extra increase in council tax.

In a statement released after the meeting, councillor Haslam said: “Despite being faced with significant financial challenges, this administration is presenting a really exciting budget for the Borders, packed with huge investment plans at a truly vital time for our economy.   

“It has not been an easy process but central to our thinking, for the entire process, was our commitment to protecting the most vulnerable individuals, families and communities of the Borders.

“We have had to make over £8m in savings for this year, this is combined with £16million last year, it has been a very challenging budget.

“While other Council areas are making cuts to frontline services, we are making one of the biggest investment in history for our schools in terms of digital transformation and we are hugely proud of that.”

Councillor Bell’s team also sent out a statement following the press conference. He said: “We are also committing £9.2m more new money, next year alone, into the expansion of early learning and childcare and as well as protecting teacher numbers we are defending the employment of school librarians as there has been no report back on the much contested piloting of changes.

“We also intend to protect young and old by putting £150,000 into schools mental health support and committing to funding, recommended last year, for £6.9m into extra care housing and what is called “technology enabled care” to allow more old people to live safely at home for longer.”

Joseph Anderson , Local Democracy Reporting Service