Dec 182010

By Cllr Martin Ford, Aberdeenshire Council

Last week a key decider of Aberdeenshire Council’s 2011/12 revenue budget became known – the level of grant support the Council will be getting from the Scottish Government.

It is important to remember that Scottish councils depend on the Scottish Government for the vast bulk – around 80 per cent – of the money they need to meet the cost of providing public services.

An overall cut in its funding for local government next year of 2.6 per cent has been promised by the Scottish Government provided councils agree to a Council Tax freeze and other measures – otherwise the cut in grant funding for councils is to be 6.4 per cent.

Aberdeenshire Council has already decided that it will freeze the Council Tax and meet the other terms set by the Scottish Government as conditions for a smaller cut in its grant (see: Council Tax Freeze and Many Cuts Decided, Aberdeen Voice, 26 November 2010).

By enforcing a Council Tax freeze, the Scottish Government has removed from councils any real say over the total amount they have to spend.

In fact, within the overall 2.6 per cent reduction in funding for councils, Aberdeenshire Council has done relatively well. It will receive funding of £427 million from the Scottish Government towards the running costs of council services in the financial year 2011/12.
This is a cut of 1.9 per cent in cash terms – not as bad as expected and not as bad as the 2.6 per cent average reduction in funding councils are facing.

A 1.9 per cent cut in cash terms, though, is a cut of more than 5 per cent in real terms – once inflation and other increases in costs are taken into account. This is a severe cut.

Moreover, as a result of the formula used to distribute funding amongst councils, Aberdeenshire is still receiving a much lower grant per head of population than most councils do. Aberdeenshire Council receives more than 12.5 per cent less than the average amount of funding provided to councils per head of population. And unlike many councils, Aberdeenshire also has to cope with the budgetary pressures that result from having a growing population.

Aberdeenshire Council’s Liberal Democrat/Conservative administration voted through budget cuts and savings totalling almost £27 million at the November full council meeting. Efficiencies and cuts were approved right across the range of public services provided by the Council.

However, the extent of further spending reductions – beyond the £27 million of cuts and savings already voted through – required to achieve a balanced revenue budget for 2011/12 could not be worked out until the Council’s grant settlement became known. The 1.9 per cent cut in the Council’s funding from the Scottish Government means additional savings totalling around £3.5 million will now have to be found.

Council finance officers are still seeking clarification from the Scottish Government regarding some of the conditions that the Council has to comply with in order to avoid the threatened funding cut of 6.4 per cent. There is therefore still some uncertainty about the full financial implications of what the Council will have to do in order to have its funding cut by 1.9 per cent.

So while it is now clear that the Council will have to find additional savings of close to £3.5 million, the exact amount still cannot be calculated.

In total, Aberdeenshire Council will have to cut approximately £30.5 million of spending to balance its revenue budget for 2011/12.

That is going to have a serious impact on Council services and on some service users.

The Council is responsible for deciding exactly what it will cut.
However, it has been put in a position where the total saving required has been decided for it – and for that the Scottish Government must take responsibility.

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.

Nov 052010

By Richard Pelling.

Golden Square.  Sounds quite exotic doesn’t it ? Despite being a classical granite square just off Union Street in Aberdeen, all is not well in Golden Square as we witness yet another chapter in the shameful transition of Aberdeen from Granite City to Grabbit City.

So what’s the deal this time I hear you ask ?

Well, let us begin by having a wee neb at the Aberdeen City Centre Development Framework and see what it says about this Golden Square (Section 3.6.6 of the document).

“the classical character of the Square has been destroyed with an over dominance of parking. Golden Square should be developed into a space that focuses on pedestrian movement and activity, celebrating the statue of George 5th * whilst balancing the needs of vehicular movement”

[* the statue is of George, 5th Duke of Gordon ].

Sounds good … the framework looks like it sets out to swing the balance in favour of the pedestrian in a city centre that is severely lacking in public open space, but wait, there’s more.

“Better use of Golden Square could be achieved by (among other things)


Removing cars from the central space


Introducing greenery, formal planting and seating into the central space”

Sounds really nice … Now bear in mind that this City Centre Development Framework is “live” and part of the material from the Aberdeen Local Development Plan with feedback invited by 5pm on 17th December 2010.

The document, available on-line, is credited to the Enterprise, Planning and Infrastructure Committee of Aberdeen City Council (ACC) – remember the name.

we see from this report that Aberdeen City Council has coveted this car park for a while and has evidently made considerable effort to secure it

Two sides to the tale

Now you would think that the major issue here is that the “central space” in the square is currently used, not as a commercial car park, but as a charity car park by the Aberdeen branch of the Royal British Legion for raising money – through donations – to help ex-servicemen.

A dilemma indeed. It would be a real shame to see the ex-servicemen and their chosen charities lose their revenue, but it would be nice to have the central bit of the square back with a focus on the pedestrian and creating some new public open space with seating in the city centre – especially at a time when the City Council are intent on destroying nearby Union Terrace Gardens, the much loved green heart of Aberdeen.

But …this is Aberdeen.

Oh yes, but this is Aberdeen and things always get more complex.

Now while the Aberdeen Local Development Plan is still a live consultation process, Aberdeen City Council has annexed the ex-servicemen’s charity car park not for creation of a new central square with grass and seats but … wait for it … for a car park! Since Monday 18th October, the Council have imposed their own parking regime on the square at the Council’s commercial rates – far higher than the donations that the ex-servicemen asked for.

From the Press & Journal (15th October)

“Local Authority to get benefit of facility that raised cash for ex-soldiers”

A bit of delving and we see from this report that Aberdeen City Council has coveted this car park for a while and has evidently made considerable effort to secure it … why ? Is it perhaps, to quote the report that :

“There will be a setting up cost of £20,000 which could be funded from the Non-Housing Capital programme for machines, signing etc. The anticipated revenue income from the car park over the period of a full year is estimated at £160,000.”

one wonders what the public will think of the councillors who took the ex-serviceman’s charity car park away

Apparently the council will give the Royal British Legion some share of the money but this will reduce on a sliding scale to zero over a few years.

When I read this next bit of the council minutes I wasn’t moved to comment, I was near enough moved to tears :

“RBL (Aberdeen Branch) uses the monies received from the car parking donations towards charitable contributions to other organisations and to support local ex-servicemen and their families. Recent examples of supported organisations are: Erskine Homes, Gurkha Welfare Trust, local Salvation Army, Air, Army and Sea Cadets, local RNLI, Gordon Highlander Association. The RBL also provide assistance to local ex-servicemen and women, make home and hospital visits and provide a small bereavement grant to families on the death of one of its members.”

But… this is Aberdeen

Oh yes and this being Aberdeen, … lets take another look at the P&J

“Councillor Kate Dean, Head of the Enterprise, Planning and Infrastructure committee which decided to take over the car park, defended the decision.”

Hold on … that wouldn’t be the same Enterprise, Planning and Infrastructure Committee that are credited with the Aberdeen City Centre Development Framework (dated August 2010) and which forms part of a live consultation with feedback invited by 17th December 2010 ?

You know, the one where it says

“Better use of Golden Square could be achieved by (among other things)


Removing cars from the central space


Introducing greenery, formal planting and seating into the central space”

Is this Aberdeen Local Development Plan consultation set to be just another sham consultation that eats up public funds and delivers feedback that the council ignore and do what they wanted to do anyway?

So soon after a survey of citizens (initiated by the council) indicated that the recent actions of Aberdeen City Councillors had damaged public trust in democracy one wonders what the public will think of the councillors who took the ex-serviceman’s charity car park away … just a month before Remembrance Sunday.

We will remember them.


Oct 292010

With thanks to Mark Chapman.

Up to two hundred and thirty seven local jobs in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs are at risk, warned Public & Commercial Services Union today, following George Osborne’s Comprehensive Spending Review announcement.

Local Union Leader Mark Chapman issued the warning after Osborne announced cuts of more than 15% in the HMRC budget, and HMRC Chief Executive Lesley Strathie announced to staff that upwards of thirteen thousand additional jobs would be lost.

Previously agreements won by the Union have offered protection to staff in ‘strategic’ offices, and have secured transfers to those sites for staff in other locations.  In this new climate of cuts, all bets are off, and all HMRC offices once again face the risk of closure.

No definitive announcements have been made yet on which offices are to close, but insiders suggest that the Department will be seeking to utilise any lease breaks available to them, regardless of location, to carry out cuts as quickly as possible.

Mr Chapman said, “As a matter of priority, we will be seeking confirmation from the Department of the lease breaks that exist on the rented office space at Ruby House, Ruby Place Aberdeen.

There is £123,000 million that could be collected in tax that is immorally dodged

“We believe that members deserve candour and honesty from their employer at this difficult time, but instead local managers’ hands are tied by the desire to provide as much publicity as possible for George Osborne and his pals.”

Local frustrations and concerns are not divorced from the wider national picture, though, said Mr Chapman; “There is £123,000 million that could be collected in tax that is immorally dodged.  HMRC staff could and should be collecting that money, and so we reject entirely the notion that jobs should be lost where people could be redeployed usefully to getting that money in.

The PCS supported the buses running from Aberdeen to the “There is a Better Way” demonstration in Edinburgh on Saturday 23 October, and at the demonstration our members gave vent to their frustrations with a Government that is hell bent on cuts at any cost.”

  • PCS, the Public and Commercial Services Union is the union representing civil and public servants in central government. It has more than 270,000 members in over 200 departments and agencies. It also represents workers in parts of government transferred to the private sector.  Over 34,000 members are based in Scotland.  PCS is the UK’s sixth largest union and is affiliated to the TUC. The general secretary is Mark Serwotka and the president Janice Godrich.  The Scottish Secretary is Lynn Henderson.
  • For further information, please contact Mark Chapman, PCS Aberdeen & Inverness Revenue & Customs Branch President on 0798 447 9628.