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Council budget 'selling the family silver', warns Buckie councillor

By Alan Beresford

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MORAY Council's budget for 2024-25 has been slammed by a Buckie councillor as selling "the family silver".

For the first time in 10 years, Wednesday saw the local authority set a cross-party budget securing a package of £278.8 million for the financial year ahead.

Additional spending on community wardens and youth workers, £40,000 to top-up welfare grants, reducing glyphosate use and a commitment to Just Transition activity means the financial plans passed with full support of all elected members.

The budget is set alongside a warning that most of the £19.2 million shortfall will be met from savings and reserves with further savings of £13 million needed in 2025/26.

Buckie independent councillor Neil McLennan has raised a stark warning about the budget deal.

Councillor Neil McLennan.
Councillor Neil McLennan.

He stated that of the total budget, it was around £300,000 that was being fought over and then collaborated over and was just "fiddling round the edges".

Speaking in the council chambers, Councillor McLennan warned fellow elected members: “In a couple of years you will have spent the family silver and have nothing to show for it.”

He went on to say that he has reported his concerns about last year’s budget setting process and this year’s budget to Audit Scotland via the council’s auditors.

Councillor McLennan continued: “It feels like fiddling around the edges whilst Elgin and surrounding Moray areas public services are burned – burned by Westminster, burned by Holyrood and burned by lack of ambition, vision and leadership locally.

"What is galling for the people of Buckie is that I proposed full funding for a new Buckie High School in the 2023 budget however fellow Buckie elected members did not vote for it or challenge the way in which my fiscally prudent budget was blocked.

"Again I have been blocked this year. I had wanted to set the council tax at the budget meeting but defer on approving any budget until we forced Scottish Government's hand to bridge the gap. Councils can do this and there are timelines to do this within.

"Sadly what 25 councillors voted for today means we continue to sell the family silver and we are no closer to a new Buckie High School coming any time soon. Keeping on eating into reserves simply cannot continue to happen.

"Buckie voters will see who and which parties stood up for Buckie and who did not."

Councillors Sonya warren and John Stuart. Picture: Beth Taylor
Councillors Sonya warren and John Stuart. Picture: Beth Taylor

In a joint statement, Buckie SNP councillors Sonya Warren and John Stuart said that the public "would not forgive" elected members if they cut services while retaining significant sums in reserve.

They said: "Today we welcome the approval of the 2024-25 budget, which saw cross-party support.

"The budget represented a working together approach, which supported a range of amendments being accepted into the budget. It is great that our amendment which was put forward by our SNP group, is now part of the approved budget. Last year we proposed a similar amendment, and we were all disappointed when this had failed. The increase in community wardens and additional community youth workers, will help support our community in Buckie and throughout Moray.

"It is reassuring that a new Buckie High School remains in the capital plan and is due to be completed by 2029. The consultation for the Buckie ASG begun earlier this month, and we would encourage everyone to be complete the school learning estate survey, available on Moray Council’s website.

"The people of Moray would not forgive us if we cut services when the council is holding significant reserves.

"In response to Councillor McLennan’s comments regarding this year and previous budget, his budget proposal for 2023-24 was deemed incompetent. This year we saw no budget proposal from Councillor McLennan, nor did we see any budget amendment for any item that he saw fit. We therefore have been unable to consider or vote on his budget proposals or amendments as part of budget meetings in the last two years."

Council leader Council Kathleen Robertson shares a lighter moment during the budget meeting, flanked by the local authority's chief executive Roddy Burns. Picture: Daniel Forsyth
Council leader Council Kathleen Robertson shares a lighter moment during the budget meeting, flanked by the local authority's chief executive Roddy Burns. Picture: Daniel Forsyth

Speaking after the budget was agreed, Moray Council leader Councillor Kathleen Robertson (Forres, Conservative) said: “It pleases me no end that, through collegiate working, we’ve managed to pass a balanced budget with full, cross-party support.

"All voices have been heard in this budget and I look forward to continuing to work with colleagues to transform our approach to savings through innovation to balance future budgets and provide better services to residents.

“We’re determined that we, collectively, create a sustainable council to put us on a path of transformation, innovation and stability.

“We’re not saying that’s easy and there will still need to be serious conversations around the £4 million in budget pressures we face over the next year. But with management restructures, refocusing on priorities, and the measures already agreed earlier this year indicatively bringing in an estimated additional £2.2 million, we’re on our way to stable footing.

“We also can’t forget the additional funding Moray has secured to support economic growth and infrastructure over the next decade to the tune of £138 million. There are exciting prospects for Moray in 2024 and we, as a council body, are wholly behind the vision.”

Full council agreed to go ahead with the savings previously consulted on and had already made decisions on £2.7 million worth of savings. Capital spending plans of £50 million for 2024-25 and update to charges for some services were also agreed earlier this year to generate income.

Now, the council has identified a further £1.5 million of savings through a series of operational service reductions, removal of vacant posts or reducing existing posts. This includes reducing the Money Advice Service. Full details of the most recent proposals are available on moray.gov.uk/budget2024.

Council tax gas also been frozen at last year's level following the Scottish Government provision of around £2.5 million for this purpose.

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