This year’s Council budget proposals will be decided at the Dumfries & Galloway meeting of Full Council on Tuesday 27th February.
When my SNP colleagues stood for election last May, we set out a manifesto which made a lot of commitments to the people of Dumfries & Galloway and, working in a partnership Administration, we’ve included and financed as many as we can in our first budget.
This is just the first year of a 5-year commitment and some things will take longer than others, so we’ve started by investing in economic regeneration with the £1 million Town Centre Living Fund, available to towns across the region, aimed at converting town centre buildings back to residential use. We’re investing in a tourism marketing scheme to promote our region in Europe, with a focus on food and drink tourism, which is central to our economy.
But visitors and residents will find it hard to get around if the road infrastructure isn’t fit. We know the region’s roads have suffered badly over the winter, so we are protecting the roads maintenance budget, and investing an additional £500,000 on capital works to extend the usable life of the network with the priority on carriageway repairs. We’ve also, unlike other proposals on the table, protected investment in the local bus services which had previously been hit with a loss of evening and Sunday timetables.
When SNP Councillors say something is a priority, we mean to back it up with action and deliver on our word. Instead of talking about ‘Anti-Poverty’ while sitting on the money, our administration is going to actually make sure it reaches those in need. We’re increasing spending on initiatives to tackle poverty, including funding to provide school meals during school holidays, and during study leave to combat holiday malnutrition, providing funding for free sanitary products for every school in the region, as well as funding to reduce the cost of the school day for those who struggle.
We’ll also be using the Council’s Area Committees to distribute local anti-poverty funding and have set aside support to mitigate the impacts of Universal Credit when it is rolled out later this year.
Additional Support for Learning (ASL) is an important area of activity for us, and there will always be challenges that crop up even as we work to improve how schools manage their resources and cater for children and young people. To this end we are investing £100,000 per year for each of the next three years in providing ASL support for children and young people who are looked after by the local authority. I’ve seen budgets as recently as last year where hidden in the words it told a different story from the figures, and it’s that kind of disparity that leads to confusion, distrust, and people resigning in protest over this emotive subject.
The challenges of providing good-quality public services in an age of increasing need and diminishing public sector resources require the maturity to take and stand by difficult decisions. But we also know that clear priorities and an approach which works in genuine partnership with our communities will help us meet those challenges, deliver on our promises for Dumfries & Galloway. All the public sector partners and public bodies have to realise that you can’t spend the same tax-payers’ pound more than once, and we need to lead with that in mind.
Supporting adult health and social care with our region’s demographics means trusting our NHS partners and working closely with them. so we will make sure the funding from the Scottish Government goes straight to the Integrated Joint Board (IJB) and this area of activity, delivering a cash flat settlement instead of the cuts many other local authorities are imposing.
We have instructed a review of care charges for adults with disabilities, and to ensure no-one is further disadvantaged in this coming year we have instructed the IJB, as a condition of receiving the full funding, that no care charges will increase this year.
In terms of capital investments we will be funding new wi-fi in the region’s secondary schools to get with the 21st Century, pushing hard on Stranraer Waterfront, Phase 2 of Dumfries Learning Town and the Borderlands Growth Deal. Progress with Stranraer Waterfront in particular has been very slow in the past, but with political direction we are now working to get costings for these projects to give firm funding allocations. These are priorities and they will be delivered.
Other investments will be in “inclusive play” and a community play equipment fund will see a total £1,000,000 investment in delivering play parks accessible for all, helping communities to replace worn out play equipment where it’s needed most.
We made a commitment to deliver participatory budgeting in our manifesto, committing to 1% (£3m) of the Council’s revenue budget being spent as our communities think best by the end of this Council. We are starting by rolling out this approach to the resources spent on parks, grass-cutting and maintenance of public spaces. We are serious about empowering communities and that means giving people a say over how their money is spent.
Finally, we promised a new Modern Apprenticeship Scheme in our manifesto, and while we won’t be in a position to launch the scheme this year, we have instructed the preparatory work with a view to a new scheme being up and running in 2019.
We’ve are focussed on achieving all of this against the backdrop of continued UK austerity, which the Scottish Government has worked hard to mitigate but cannot remove. This will be the eighth year of austerity – with £86m of savings made since 2010. We know that austerity has failed and we also know that if it continues our Council will need to save another £46 million over the next three years. We need to move away from spending today’s money on what we did yesterday, when it no longer delivers what we need, and start investing in smarter services that we can sustain as we look to the future.