Dec 21 2012 by Colin Rutherford, Kilmarnock Standard
East Ayrshire Council leader Douglas Reid pulled a few rabbits out of the hat as the authority set an unprecedented cost-cutting budget last week.
As members voted through a package which will mean cuts of £25 million over the next three years, the council chief sought to sweeten the pill with the announcement of over £4 million to fund new initiatives.
And the lowest paid council workers will also benefit with the news that the living wage of £7.50 an hour, which was to be brought in next April, would instead be introduced with immed-iate effect.
Among the surprises sprung by Councillor Reid were £1 million to fund housing and environmental improvements, £1.2 million to improve broadband coverage for local businesses and an extra £1 million for roads repairs.
Other measures are a £500,000 welfare reform fund – aimed at improving advice and support for those hit by benefit changes – and £350,000 to promote science and technology in primary schools.
Said Councillor Reid: “These are one-off investments – all made possible by in-year underspends arising from good housekeeping.”
Presenting the budget, he said: “We can look at transformation in two ways. It’s either about a series of short-term measures to cut costs in line with funding cuts or it’s about making the most of what we have, to improve services and to put the organisation where it needs to be to meet future demands.
“We need to use our money wisely and productively and this budget focuses our resources on the things that matter most.”
He was backed by depute council leader Tom Cook.
The leader of the SNP’s Conservative coalition partners said that no member of the council had taken office with the intention of making sweeping budget cuts.
“However that is the position we find ourselves in today,” he said.
“We have to take a responsible approach to the forecast budget gap.”
Councillor Cook said that the budget proposals followed the biggest and most comprehensive consultation exercise every carried out by East Ayrshire.”
A very different view of the consultation process was taken by Labour opposition leader Maureen McKay.
She attacked the SNP/Conservative administration for allowing the budget consultation to be fronted by council officials, rather than by the authority’s political leadership.
“It begins to make you wonder why we really bothered with an election,” she said.
And she told the meeting: “Overall, the people of East Ayrshire have not given their informed consent.”
Councillor McKay proposed reopening the consultation procedure and the establishment of a budget committee to ensure political leadership.
Her depute Barney Menzies questioned the amendments made to the proposals following the consultation, suggesting that the issues concerned have been put in the budget with the intention of changing them.
The Labour intervention brought criticism from SNP members, who pointed out that the opposition had not produced an alternative budget.
Councillor Reid told the meeting: “This is the worst recession this country has ever faced.
“This is a three-year budget which will deal with that and protect the most vulnerable in the community.”
The budget was approved by 17 votes to 14.
Key budget measures include the transfer of leisure and cultural services to a trust and changes to school transport arrangements.
New moves to extend recycling will mean a move to four-weekly collection of residual waste and local council offices are to be closed, with their work transferred to post offices.