Financially speaking, this is going to be a very tough year
As this column falls in the middle of the festive period I’d like to start by saying that I hope all readers had an enjoyable and peaceful Christmas.
I’d also like to wish you all the best for Hogmanay and for the year ahead. If 2016 is anything like 2015 it will bring a lot of challenges but here’s hoping there are also some opportunities too, for us all as individuals but also for South Lanarkshire as a whole.
We already know what one of those challenges will be for the council which I am privileged to lead on your behalf. For one thing is abundantly clear already - financially speaking , it is going to be a very tough year.
As I’ve written here before, balancing the area’s budget for 2016/17 was always going to be difficult and involve some hard choices.
I remain absolutely committed to protecting key council services wherever possible. But that is getting increasingly hard to do.
Earlier this month finance secretary John Swinney made it harder than ever, after delivering one of the worst settlements for local government in one of the most brutal budgets I have seen in two decades of public service.
We’ve been faced with the challenge of austerity for some time, and South Lanarkshire Council has found about £100m in savings in recent years. Despite what some may claim, I can tell you there is no fat in our budget. When we make cuts now, we are cutting into the bone.
Before Mr Swinney’s budget statement on December 16 we were having to look at ways to save £36m next year. Elected members had been asked to consider some pretty unpalatable measures, including reduction in school supplies, social work cuts and the removal of subsidies for gala days and festive lighting.
We were all trying to find ways to avoid the worst of these efficiencies, but then Mr Swinney hit us with a massive further reduction in the settlement for councils. South Lanarkshire’s government grant will fall next year by £21m more than the worst scenario we had feared.
That means it seems certain we will have to go back to the council’s executive committee with further proposals.
This is terrible news for the tens of thousands of local people who rely on us for their vital services, from taking care of the elderly to educating children. John Swinney could have stood with councils to protect public services.
Instead, he has delivered greater than ever levels of austerity.
The facts are clear – the Scottish Government has been given a cash increase from Westminster for next year but it has cut the amount it passes on to local authorities. Make no mistake, this was an austerity budget which was signed, sealed and delivered in Scotland by the SNP, and it is ordinary Scots who will pay the price.
I started this column by wishing readers festive greetings. Personally, I’m finding it very hard to be cheerful, given the financial position we’ve been put into.
But I will make you this promise: my new year’s resolution is that your council will do its utmost to save our services and especially to protect the most vulnerable members of society.
The Scottish Government has made that job incredibly tough, and I urge you all to remember that if you do see your services affected in the difficult months ahead.