Nov 262010

By Councillor Martin Ford.

Yesterday (25th November), Aberdeenshire Council took important decisions about its budget for the financial year 2011/12.

It was one of the worst days I have had as an Aberdeenshire councillor.

First, the Council had to decide whether it would accept Finance Secretary John Swinney’s ‘offer’ of a funding cut of 2.6 per cent (£10.243 million) in return for the Council agreeing to a package of measures including no increase in the Council Tax.

On this the Council was unanimous – because the alternative was so much worse. If the Council refused to comply with the conditions set by Mr Swinney for a 2.6 per cent cut in funding, funding would be cut instead by 6.4 per cent, or £27.093 million.
Faced with losing an additional £16.850 million in grant, the Council effectively had no choice but to agree to meet the requirements for the smaller cut in funding.

Agreeing to freeze the Council Tax is not the same as agreeing with freezing the Council Tax – as several councillors made clear. Enforcing a Council Tax freeze on councils is wrong in principle. The decision as to what balance to strike between raising additional revenue and cutting council services is properly one for councils and not the Scottish Government.

Had Mr Swinney allowed councils to decide on the level of Council Tax next year, some of the cuts to services could have been avoided. In the case of Aberdeenshire, the Band D Council Tax is £1141. A one per cent increase, £11.41 per year or 22 pence per week, would bring in around £1.2 million to help pay for public services.

There is, though, to be no increase in the Council Tax – just a cut in government grant. Although the cut will be 2.6 per cent in cash terms, in real terms, allowing for inflation and cost pressures, the cut is 7.9 per cent. Having made the decision to comply with the conditions set for a 2.6 per cent cut in funding, the second debate at yesterday’s Council meeting was on the cuts that would be required to achieve a balanced budget.

This was a grim experience indeed.

it appears that Aberdeenshire Council has already decided on most of the cuts it will make in next year’s budget

Councillors were provided with a huge list of potential cuts and efficiencies that together were projected to save almost £27 million. The cuts identified ranged from fewer teachers and classroom assistants to reduced opening hours for swimming pools, fewer social work staff, ending grants to voluntary organisations and reducing grounds maintenance.

Councillors were warned that to make these cuts from the start of the 2011/12 financial year, work had to start immediately. Making staff redundant is not something that can be rushed.

While it was certainly necessary to authorise the Council’s management to continue preparation work so the cuts identified could be implemented if agreed when the Council sets its 2011/12 budget on 10 February, the Council’s Liberal Democrat/Conservative administration went further. Summing up the debate on the cuts options, the Council leader, Cllr Anne Robertson, made clear that agreement to proceed with work on the cuts listed was a decision to make them.

The cuts were approved by a large majority.

On this basis, it appears that Aberdeenshire Council has already decided on most of the cuts it will make in next year’s budget. Depending on the exact grant settlement the Council receives from the Scottish Government, some additional savings will need to be found before budget day in February.

We will find out exactly what the Council will get in grant funding in two weeks time.

Nov 192010

By Cllr Martin Ford, Aberdeenshire Council.

Following the announcement on Wednesday (17th November) by Finance Secretary John Swinney of the Scottish Government’s budget proposals, the scale of the cuts required at Aberdeenshire Council has become slightly clearer.

If the Council agrees to freeze the Council Tax and other measures, it will have its government funding cut by around £10 million. If it does not agree to freeze the Council Tax, it will lose around £30 million from its government funding support.

Effectively, Mr Swinney has re-introduced Council Tax capping, with the cap set at no increase at all. Preventing some of the threatened cuts in services by a measured rise in the Council Tax has to all intents and purposes been ruled out – although there is a strong case for taking that option. As it is, that choice has been denied to communities and their elected representatives by a Scottish Government that is showing no respect for local democratic decision-making and is forcing councils to make cuts that could have been avoided.

Freezing the Council Tax is clearly financially unsustainable and, given inflation and rising costs, is effectively a tax cut. A Council Tax freeze as a temporary measure when budgets were rising was one thing. Forcing councils to, in effect, cut local tax when their grant funding is also being reduced is quite another.

Far from reducing the impact of budget cuts arising from decisions at Westminster the Scottish Government is adding cuts of its own.

Mr Swinney’s statement has left a lot of uncertainty surrounding the funding for local government next year. It has provided no basis for forward planning for future years.

Freezing the Council Tax is clearly financially unsustainable and, given inflation and rising costs, is effectively a tax cut

As best it is possible to judge at this stage, taking into account higher costs and other pressures, Aberdeenshire Council is probably going to have to cut around £30 million from its budget for 2011/12.

Some of the savings required can certainly be achieved by finding efficiencies. But with such a huge funding shortfall, cuts in services are, sadly, inevitable.

On Thursday next week (25th November), the Council will start the process of deciding what services to cut. Council finance officers are advising that the Council will need to make savings of almost £17 million by cutting services, with the balance of savings being achieved by efficiencies and increases in charges.

The reduction in the Council’s budget is expected to result in a loss of around 900 full-time equivalent posts. This is almost 10 per cent of the Council’s workforce.

This is not the first time Aberdeenshire Council has had to make cuts in services. But this is far worse than anything I have experienced since I was first elected in 1999. The budget cut required is significantly more. And this time the option of reducing the cuts by increasing income from the Council Tax has been denied to the Council by the Scottish Government. The Council really has very little room for manoeuvre. It gets to decide what to cut, but the scale of the overall cut has been decided for it.

Nov 152010

By Cllr Martin Ford, Aberdeenshire Council

Next February, councils will set their revenue budgets for the financial year 2011/12. It looks certain that the funding councils receive from government will be reduced, leaving councils with no choice but to make painful cuts to a wide range of public services.

Aberdeenshire Council will be no different from other councils in the difficult decisions it will have to take.

The Council’s revenue budget – the budget that pays for the running costs of Council services – is currently £550 million. Around 20 per cent of that comes from the Council Tax, the Council offsets the cost of some services by charging users, but the vast bulk of the Council’s funding comes, in one form or another, from the Scottish Government. Even before the Council Tax freeze, the Council only had control over a small proportion of its income. Now, effectively, the amount the Council has to spend on services is fixed by the grant funding it receives from government. If the Council is given less, it will have to cut its spending accordingly.

One problem for the Council is that, only three months before setting its budget, it still does not know what size of spending cut it will have to make.

Aberdeenshire may have to make savings of anything from £25 to £40 million next year. It could even be more, or less, than that range. Until the Scottish Government makes its decisions, the Council is having to plan for a variety of scenarios.

The position will become clearer when the Scottish Government’s draft budget for 2011/12 is published on Wednesday. The Council will probably have to wait until close to Christmas before it finds out exactly what level of funding it will receive from the Scottish Government next year.

I have been a councillor for eleven years. Setting the Council’s revenue budget is always challenging. There is never enough money to fund all the services the Council would ideally provide. The cost of providing services goes up every year due to price increases (especially, in recent years, for electricity and heating), staff salaries and, in some key areas, more people needing the service. For most of the last ten years, though, the Council has received additional funding from government, but not usually enough to fully cover the increased cost of keeping services running as before.

For the first time in my experience, the Council’s overall budget is set to shrink

Arriving at a balanced budget for the following year required some spending to be cut and savings made even though there was to be a rise in the Council’s total spending.

This year will be different. For the first time in my experience, the Council’s overall budget is set to shrink. Savings (or cuts) will have to be found to offset all the rises in costs since last year, and the Council will have to cut spending to match the reduction in income from government grant. Since the Council has been seeking savings every year already, there are no (or very few) easy options for achieving this.

Personally, I will want to support measures that as far as possible protect education and social services, reduce the Council’s carbon emissions and which accord with sound financial management.

There are a few savings that I think the Council should not find it too difficult to agree. One example is funding for unadopted roads.

The Council will struggle to adequately fund the maintenance of public roads, a clear council responsibility. It can’t afford to contribute towards the cost of maintaning or improving roads it is not responsible for that provide access across private land.

Ending funding contributions to unadopted roads would save the Council £300,000 – a worthwhile saving but only a small fraction of the savings the Council needs to make.

Raising additional tax revenue from those who can afford to pay would be a good start

I hope the Council will use the budget process to acknowledge that it cannot afford what it would have to pay if the Western Peripheral Route was built.

Unfortunately, however, it is difficult to see how the Council will be able to balance its budget without making cuts in education and social work. These are the services which account for the bulk of the Council’s spending. The education budget alone accounts for nearly half of what the Council spends each year.

Cutting education or social work is the last thing I want to do – but the Council cannot spend money it does not have.

It is also true that the UK budget deficit cannot be ignored – reducing it is essential – but there are alternatives to the draconian cuts in public services and welfare the Liberal Democrat/Conservative coalition government has chosen. Raising additional tax revenue from those who can afford to pay would be a good start. The Scottish Government too could use its powers over taxation to reduce the scale of the cuts if it wanted to.

Given the scale of the likely cuts, I believe asking some people to contribute a bit more towards the cost of public services would have been a far better and fairer option.

Sep 172010

By Sue Edwards.

The Scottish Green Party has announced that Aberdeenshire councillor Dr Martin Ford will top the party’s North-East regional list for next year’s Scottish Parliament elections followed by local branch convenor Rhonda Reekie.

One of the North-east’s best-known political figures, Councillor Ford has for over twenty years consistently argued the case for stronger action to tackle climate change. He is a strong advocate for improving public transport.

Recently, he has played a leading role in championing the rights of the home-owners at Menie threatened by the expansion of Donald Trump’s planned golf resort.

Councillor Ford has argued that the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route is unaffordable and that, with limited funding available, priority should be given to badly needed new school buildings instead.

Councillor Martin Ford said:
“The North-East desperately needs some new MSPs. No-one in Parliament currently represents the thousands of North-East residents who want to see priority to given to investing in education, instead of expensive and ineffective road building. The vast majority of North-East MSPs have remained completely silent on the threat of eviction hanging over the residents at Menie. All of them are backing transport schemes that will increase carbon emissions while claiming to be committed to tackling climate change.”

We have the opportunity to re-draw Scotland’s political landscape next year

“The North-East needs a strong Green voice in Holyrood, someone local people can trust and who will put the community’s interest before short-term and unsustainable profiteering. I am therefore most grateful to the Scottish Green Party’s membership for giving me the chance to be their top candidate and I will fight for every vote across the North-East next May.”

The Scottish Green Party is confident of increasing its representation at Holyrood next year. In the North-East, with an experienced and well-known lead candidate, the Party has high hopes of success, having held a seat here between 2003 and 2007. In addition, an extra seat has been added to the North-East list to reflect population change, reducing the percentage of votes required to secure election next May. If the Greens poll more than about 6 per cent of the party votes in the North-East next year, Councillor Ford will become one of the North-East’s representatives at Holyrood.

Patrick Harvie MSP, the Scottish Green Party’s co-convenor, said:
“The 2011 election will be an important moment, where Scots can vote for a positive agenda of social justice and safeguarding the environment instead of the failed centre-right agenda of the rest. Every other political party at Holyrood supported that agenda – growth obsessed, free market dominated and environmentally reckless – while the Greens predicted their failure.”

“Now a vicious programme of public service cuts is proposed as the solution. The alternative is to cut the vanity projects and protect the vital services; to realise the opportunities of a low-waste, low-energy, low-carbon economy; and to put quality of life ahead of the selfish values of the right which have dominated our politics for far too long. We have the opportunity to re-draw Scotland’s political landscape next year. I urge everyone who wants to see that happen to get involved with the Greens and help make it a reality.”

We will be campaigning to protect the green spaces in our cities, towns and villages – including supporting the campaign to preserve Union Terrace Gardens

“Martin Ford has proved himself to be a person of enormous integrity and courage, prepared to stand up for local people no matter the pressure others have tried to put him under. The people of the North-East deserve a chance to vote for representatives they can trust, and in both Martin and Rhonda they have exactly that.”

Rhonda Reekie said:
“Greens will be fighting a positive campaign. Against the background of cuts to both the Scottish and council budgets, we will be arguing for priority to be given to protecting vital public services. We will be pressing for effective action to fight climate change – for example by redirecting transport spending to public transport improvements. We will be campaigning to protect the green spaces in our cities, towns and villages – including supporting the campaign to preserve Union Terrace Gardens in Aberdeen.”

“The Green Party can win in the North-East next year. Shiona Baird was elected here in 2003. We have proved ourselves in the Scottish Parliament and now have a presence at Westminster too. A Green vote next year will make a real difference and get Green MSPs elected.”

Martin Ford was first elected to Aberdeenshire Council eleven years ago, and served as chairman of the Council’s Audit Committee for five years and then chairman of the Infrastructure Services Committee, until the Council removed him in retaliation for his vote against Donald Trump’s golf resort. Amongst his other roles, Martin was chairman of the North-East Scotland Rail Freight Development Group for ten years and led the successful campaign to get the rail line between Aberdeen and the Central Belt upgraded. A botanist by training, Martin has a Ph.D. in plant ecology.

Rhonda Reekie has been Branch Convenor of Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire Greens for 4 years and is vice-chair of Bucksburn and Newhills Community Council. Rhonda fought Aberdeen South in the general elections of 2005 and 2010 and stood on the North-East list in 2007 for the Scottish Green Party.

Aug 202010

Toddler Trump … A poem by Rapunzel Wizard, a locally based performance poet who is 96% human and 4% woolly mammoth, and refuses to get a proper job or a haircut.

Too much money makes your head go funny
Swap a business suit for a romper suit
Toddler trump acts like a two year old
Spoiled rotten and never told no Continue reading »