North Ayrshire Council has agreed a budget that will see £23million of cuts implemented over the next three years, with 167 staff losing their jobs. The reduced expenditure and redundancies come on top of multi-million pound cuts already made in previous years, which resulted in 400 Council workers being paid off.
The local authority’s 30 councillors thrashed out the financial figures during a two-hour meeting last Wednesday, where genuine concern over the impact cuts would have on local services gave way to party-political point-scoring ahead of May’s Council Election.
The Council Leader, Labour’s David O’Neill, opened the meeting by reflecting on “global financial challenges” that continue to impact on resources made available to local authorities. Against that background, Cllr O’Neill said NAC faced “two major challenges – reduced funding and increased demand for services.” The Labour man then went on to describe how his administration intended to proceed, which included slashing spending by £23million over three years, reducing the number of staff delivering services to local communities, and continuing to impose pay restraint on Council workers, in effect pay cuts over the next few years.
In response, Cllr Matthew Brown, Leader of the principal opposition group, the SNP, said Labour’s budget proposals were “Much ado about nothing...and lacked innovation and imagination”.
On behalf of the Three Towns Independent Group, Cllr John Hunter stated, “The budget may be well presented, but Cllr McNicol and I are not happy with the contents.”
However, Kilbirnie & Beith Independent Jean Highgate said the financial proposals were “the best we could manage in difficult times,” adding that, in the future, “decisions will have to be taken, even if they are unpopular.” Cllr Highgate, who along with other Independents Margie Currie and Elizabeth McLardy normally supports the Labour administration, concluded by saying, “Times of plenty have well and truly gone.”
Ardrossan & Arran Independent John Hunter, seconded by the SNP’s Tony Gurney (also Ardrossan & Arran) successfully moved a Motion that secured an expanded Community Warden service for Ardrossan (reported separately).
Ronnie McNicol (Independent) , seconded by Willie Gibson (SNP) managed to rescue Saltcoats Town Hall, with the Labour administration agreeing to commit an indicative sum of £1.9million to a refurbishment of the building, which the same Labour councillors closed in 2009 (also reported separately).
In addition, the SNP’s Willie Gibson led amendments to Labour proposals to slash the Education budget. According to the SNP, “The Scottish Government gave North Ayrshire £906,000 for teachers, but Labour wanted to use this to repair a roof in Saltcoats, build a slipway in Largs and buy land in Irvine.” The Nationalists argued this was a completely inappropriate use of funding and demanded the money be reinstated to provide “teachers [and] raise educational attainment.”
For the Labour administration, Cllr David O’Neill accepted the amendments moved by Cllr Gibson and agreed to return £147,000 to the schools budget. Labour’s plan to cut £20,000 from the budget for special needs purchases was also dropped.
Cllr O’Neill concluded proceedings by thanking all councillors for their co-operation in setting and passing the budget. However, Independent John Hunter later commented, “I don’t want his thanks. Ronnie McNicol and I know this budget will cause real difficulty for some of the most vulnerable people in North Ayrshire. I don’t see any grounds for councillors to be patting themselves on the back.”
Ahead of the budget meeting, activists from the North Ayrshire Branch of the Scottish Socialist Party lobbied the Council headquarters in Irvine, demanding councillors refuse to implement multi-million pound cuts that will inevitably have a further negative impact on services and jobs in local communities.
The SSP also presented a petition to the budget meeting, containing the signatures of 1,178 residents of North Ayrshire and demanding councillors set a ‘No Cuts’ defiance budget to fully meet the needs of local people. However, the party was refused permission to address the meeting in support of the people and the petition’s aims.
Speaking after the meeting, Campbell Martin, SSP candidate for Ardrossan & Arran said, “The decisions taken by councillors will have devastating consequences for people and communities in North Ayrshire. We already have the highest level of unemployment in Scotland, and the second-highest level of children growing up in severe poverty, yet councillors from all parties have decided to implement further cuts to jobs and services.”
Mr Martin added, “The SSP is the only political party on the side of the people. We were at the budget meeting to argue the case for demanding central government in London and Edinburgh returns to North Ayrshire the millions of pounds they have stolen from budgets over recent years. We asked councillors to put local people first and to set a budget that meets the needs of North Ayrshire communities, but they weren’t even prepared to listen. They couldn’t care less about how people are suffering.”
Concluding, the former MSP said, “The councillors who voted to implement another £23million of cuts have turned their backs on the people that elected them. They’ve put implementing Tory-Lib Dem and SNP cuts before the needs and interests of local communities.”