Council budget recognises local pressures
East Ayrshire Council’s budget for 2023/24 has been approved, receiving the full agreement of all 32 elected members. Following an extended adjournment of meeting proceedings on Thursday, the agreed priorities for the year ahead include anti-social behaviour, half price school meals, civic pride and support for local tenants.
Members from all parties were unanimous in declaring this to be one of the most fraught and contentious budget setting processes in the history of the Council, as early discussions centred on the limited powers councils now have for making their own financial decisions as a consequence of Scottish Government conditions, particularly in relation to education.
As Full Council meeting got under way, it was clear from the outset that political differences were being put to one side in order to come up with a budget that would best serve the needs of the people of East Ayrshire.
In line with the meeting procedures, parties were invited to put forward a series of budget proposals for consideration and local and national concerns dominated the proposals being put forward, with a number of common themes emerging during the debate.
Councillor Douglas Reid, Leader of the Council, proposed funding to enhance the expansion of the cleanliness of towns and villages including litter and graffiti removal; the provision of additional support for council house tenants struggling with financial pressure; enhanced mental health and wellbeing support in the wake of the pandemic and during the cost of living crisis. He also pledged to help remove the stigma of period poverty by extending Paige’s Period Poverty Pouch initiative, devised by former Kilmarnock Academy pupil Paige Holland.
Councillor Maureen McKay, Leader of the Labour Group, set out some additional proposals on behalf of the Labour Group, including half price school meals for all pupils who don’t currently qualify for free or universal free school meals from P6 to S6; significant investment in play park facilities over the next two years and a review of the brown bins calendar, charging and wider recycling policy.
There was general agreement from all sides for additional investment in road repairs and the retention of the public toilets in Cumnock.
The meeting was adjourned for almost two and a half hours while councillors met to consider and debate the merits of all the options in front of them.
Provost Jim Todd, as Chair of the Council meeting, then invited Joe McLachlan, Chief Finance Officer, to present the final budget to Council, as all members reached a consensus for the way forward.
In all, 11 proposals were agreed, ten of which are non-recurring:
- £750k acceleration of play park improvements, including funds from Scottish Government
- £500k for the continuation of play park programme in 2024/25
- £500k to establish a Tenant Support Fund
- £500k for the provision of half price school meals for all pupils P6-S6 from August 2023
- £400k community safety and wellbeing initiative will tackle the condition of roads and pavements
- £254k for a Civic Pride Programme, to include a deep clean of towns and villages, including litter, gum and graffiti removal
- £162k for an anti-social behaviour team for a period of 2 years
- £120k for a programme of mental health and wellbeing supports, aligning with the priorities of the Young People's Cabinet
- £50k for the maintenance of public toilets in Cumnock
- £20k for a review of the brown bin collections and recycling calendar
- Extension of Paige’s Period Poverty Pouch initiative
The proposals require £2.596m of East Ayrshire Council funds, Mr McLachlan explained the sources of all the intended funding and gave his assurances that they were ‘prudent, affordable and sustainable’ given the current economic climate.
Councillor Reid said:
"Our communities sit at the very heart of everything we do and when setting our budgets every year we always set out to achieve the best we can for the people and businesses of East Ayrshire, with the resources we have.
"Cost of living has dominated our budget conversations this year as we are very much aware how many of our citizens are struggling at this time. But it’s been particularly challenging this year as not only are we still recovering from the pandemic and feeling the consequences of Brexit, we have a difficult financial settlement to manage and threats of further rises to inflation.
"But here in East Ayrshire we have risen above these challenges. Our over-riding priority during these discussions was to ensure that we continue to support our most vulnerable residents and our wider communities during these challenging times.
“And this budget demonstrates how we have joined forces to put the needs of the people of East Ayrshire ahead of anything else. We have found a new way of working and we’ve maintained our political integrity whilst agreeing on solutions which will make a huge difference to the people of East Ayrshire."
Councillor Maureen McKay, Leader of the Labour Group opposition echoed these sentiments; she said:
“This has been the most challenging budget settlement in 20 years and often in the most difficult of times we can do some amazing things and we have demonstrated that today by putting the needs of our communities ahead of our own political standpoints. This is a real indication of the times we now find ourselves in.
“This has been a very worthwhile process and we have achieved our ultimate aim of agreeing a balanced budget which will deliver positive outcomes for our communities.”
As part of the wider budget setting process, elected members also agreed the following:
- £3m is allocated to the creation of an Innovation Fund designed to support services to undertake early intervention and prevention initiatives aimed at incurring one-off costs which would then result in longer term savings;
- £1m is allocated to the 2023/24 energy budget, to assist with rising energy costs across the Council’s property estate over the coming year;
- £0.250m is allocated to the ASN out of schools programme for summer 2023, to be delivered by external providers;
- £0.005m to the Integration Joint Board to fund the Public Protection Reviewer role;
- Council Tax for 2023/24 will increase by 5%, with Band D increasing to £1,487.44;
- Fees and charges will be held at 2020/21 levels for all fees and charges other than those set nationally or by partners, and bereavement services fees will be maintained at 2019/20 levels;
- Council house rents will increase by 4% which equates to £3.06 per week over 52 weeks; lockups and garage site rentals will increase by £0.24 to £6.34 per week over 52 weeks for lockups and by £1.76 to £45.69 per annum for garage sites.