Some difficult decisions have been forced on the council
Last week the Reformer reported on a petition which opposes a plan to limit free bus travel to secondary school to pupils who live three miles or more away, rather than the current two mile limit.
The report said “parents are unhappy about the changes”. You know what – so am I.
I totally understand why parents who have been used to their kids getting a free bus to school don’t want to see that taken away, and not just because they’ll now have to organise that travel themselves, and sometimes pay for it.
But I hope that those who signed the petition understand that this change is not something that councillors wanted to happen. It is a change that we had little choice over, because we are legally obliged to balance our budgets but our funding has been cut.
That’s been the case for a number of years now and it has forced a number of increasingly difficult decisions to be taken. I went into local politics to make sure ordinary people were treated well, and I’ve done everything possible to make sure key services have been protected.
We can only do so much, however. The bottom line is that the council’s income from Government grant is falling and council tax remains frozen, while at the same time demand for our services is increasing, in part because of the ageing population.
In the current year alone changes to the financial settlement made by the Scottish Government has reduced the cash available to us by £3.4 million.
That’s a huge gap to fill, especially as the council is already very efficiently run, having made savings of more than £70m in recent years.
That’s why the council has been forced to achieve further significant savings this year – and I hold that cut in grant directly responsible for the decision to change the rules on free bus travel to school.
It has also forced us to make restrictions in other areas where people have become used to a certain level of service, such as free hall lets for kids sports, longer library opening hours, Christmas grants for elderly groups, and big subsidies in areas like school meals and meals on wheels.
To be clear, the council is still subsidising a huge number of services, but in some instances the subsidies are now a bit less generous.
Like I say, I’m not happy about any of it, but the cold fact is that we are being given less money to deliver our services, and so we have to make changes to make sure we can keep doing core duties like educating our kids in the best schools, providing top-class care for the elderly, fixing the roads and emptying the bins.
Of course users of affected services are disappointed. They’ve been used to us going way beyond our statutory requirements to provide some of the best services anywhere in Scotland, and where there’s been a charge it has been one of the lowest in the country.
We’re still providing the best possible services and keeping costs down, but the inevitable impact of the cut in our funding means some things have to give. And one of those is us moving to the same statutory distances for free school buses that apply to the rest of the country.
Even then, we will take a sensible approach. That’s why we are consulting schools and parents on the bus changes, and why safety assessments are being carried out on alternative journeys to school.
But I hope Reformer readers will understand that some difficult decisions have been forced on the council.
And if you don’t approve of them, join me in telling the Westminster Government to end its austerity drive, and the Scottish Government to provide appropriate funding so councils can deliver the level of services our residents rightly demand.