SNP Opposition group leader responds to Moray budget crisis

On Tuesday, January 26, insideMoray published an opinion piece from Independent Councillor John Cowe on the current budget situation at Moray Council.  Following that, and in the interest of gathering all views, we invited the SNP and Labour opposition to submit their views.

Today Councillor Gary Coull, leader of the SNP Opposition group, give his personal views on the situation.  We are yet to hear from the Labour group.

Councillor Gary Coull, leader of the SNP Opposition group at Moray Council
Councillor Gary Coull, leader of the SNP Opposition group at Moray Council

Everyone recognises that the public sector in Scotland is facing challenging financial times and so are people’s own personal budgets.

That is why I think that the Council Tax Freeze is a good policy. It has saved households around £1,500. That’s money that is in people’s pockets which can be spent in the local community keeping shops and businesses alive – keeping our economy running.

The freeze comes as no surprise to local government given that the SNP were elected, with a majority, to deliver a freeze in Council Tax until the end of this Parliament.

There’s a lot of competing statistics and myths thrown around by politicians and others about whether or not the freeze has been fully funded by the Scottish Government so let’s look at what SPICe (Scottish Parliament Information Centre), the independent research centre for the Scottish Parliament, said about the funding of the Council Tax freeze:

“…the money provided by the government to freeze the council tax has resulted in local authorities receiving more income than they would have done by increasing rates by RPI (retail price index).”

The SPICe report goes on to say that the freeze has actually been ‘overfunded’ with an extra £164.9 million going to local councils in Scotland. This is not research published by the SNP or the Scottish Government but by an impartial organisation.

Moray Council has received the equivalent of a 3% rise in council tax each year from the Scottish Government. I know many folk in Moray that are delighted by not having to pay more council tax and the recent announcement from the Independent/Conservative administration in Moray, where they wanted to whack folk with an extra 18% was too much to bear for many people. Folk have been genuinely worried about how they would have paid this.

Of course decisions on the Council’s, and Scotland’s, finances have to be made while bearing in mind that the Scottish Government’s budget is being cut by over 5% from Westminster. And thank goodness we have devolution. While in Scotland local government’s funding has been like for like between 2012 and 2016 councils in England have seen their budgets reduced by 25%.

Politics is about choices and I believe that the 18% rise announcement was a knee jerk one which wasn’t thought out. I am confident that had the administration taken the time to sit down and think about it that they could have come up with a better way forward.

Since 2007 the SNP in Moray have been calling for the Council to share services with other bodies such as neighbouring councils, the police, NHS, Fire Services, College etc. Very little movement has been made with this.

We have also been looking for a rationalisation in middle management in the Council as well as an end to vanity projects such as the Western Link Road, more, and quicker progress, on energy efficiency and an increased income and usage of our leisure facilities (the latter is beginning to happen with the Fit Life? scheme but it could have happened sooner).

Alternative Planning

The SNP group of councillors in Moray have been working hard looking at alternatives to an increase taking our time to make sure we look at and investigate all the options rather than jumping in with both feet.

We will continue to meet with Council officers and investigate the savings that we feel can be made. We will publish our thoughts once we have them finalised but we are confident that even without the developments this week that any increase in council tax would not have been necessary.

I also want to take this opportunity to clear up a point that Councillor Cowe made in his piece.

I don’t know whether he has been misinformed or chose to tell untruths in his piece when he said:

“…which trimmed another £1.8 million and, incidentally, which the SNP refused to co-operate with…”.

I can state right here and right now that the SNP group have always been willing to work on this budget with the administration.

I will give you just two pieces of evidence to support this point:

1. The Area Based Review (ABR) was a cross party group of councillors set up to investigate the running of the Council. This was a successful group which the SNP played a full and active part of. It led to a budget being presented to the Council in 2014 which was unanimously agreed. This group was disbanded at the end of 2014 because the Independent/Conservative administration walked away from it. The SNP were quite happy for this group to continue.

2. Just before Christmas the SNP were approached by the Corporate Director (Corporate Services) to meet with the Administration to discuss the upcoming budget. We were happy to do this and on Tuesday, January 12 I, along with my SNP colleague Councillor Leadbitter, met the Council Leader, Convener and Leader of the Labour Group.  This was a pleasant meeting which was opened by the Council Leader (Councillor Cree) as being an ‘open and transparent meeting about the budget’.

However, there was categorically no mention about any increase in Council Tax which was to be announced by him the next day. That showed quite clearly to me that this administration, of which Councillor Cowe is a senior member, had no intention of working with the SNP on this budget and certainly was not ‘open and transparent’.

This is a challenging time for local government and as Councils we need to change the way we work and deliver public services. We need to be smarter in our delivery and more efficient in our spending. Not an easy task but one we have to tackle and one that the SNP is committed to putting the work in to in order to achieve the best that we can for the people of Moray.