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Grass cutting, council tax and toilet closures on agenda as Moray Council agrees budget

By Jonathan Clark

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COUNCIL tax, grass cutting and toilet closures were at the top of the agenda as Moray Council set its yearly budget today.

At a special meeting of the council, the SNP administration, with the help of independents, saw their budget proposals approved by 13 votes to nine with four councillors not present.

Proposals included a 4.84 per cent increase in council tax, the re-introduction of grass cutting Moray-wide and a review of planned toilet closures.

Cuts made by the council include a reduction in funding for Moray Women's Aid, a reduction in grant support for Moray Leisure Centre, re-charging secondary schools for the cost of music tuition and an end to funding for the NHS Mental Health Support Team from 2021/22 onwards.

All measures are subject to the Scottish Budget being approved by the Scottish Parliament on Thursday, March 5.

Council Leader Graham Leadbitter (SNP, Elgin City South) was pleased to get the budget agreed.

Graham Leadbitter preparing for the meeting... Picture: Eric Cormack
Graham Leadbitter preparing for the meeting... Picture: Eric Cormack

He said: "This year's budget will be the largest revenue budget the council has ever implemented at over £210 million. Taking our housing revenue budget and capital expenditure into account, the investment in services in Moray will exceed £300 million.

"This investment includes our hugely important early years service rollout, investment in school counsellors, continued investment in new schools and community facilities, investment in new council housing and in many other areas of service.

"We appreciate the huge support we have had from our communities in what has been a challenging period for the council."

Conservative Leader Tim Eagle (Buckie), whose alternative budget was defeated, welcomed the re-introduction of grass cutting, but was disappointed at the lack of a "firm assurances" on toilet closures – and said a rise in council tax will hit Moray's poorest.

The Conservatives said they would increase tax rates by 3 per cent.

Tim Eagle prior to the meeting.. Picture: Eric Cormack
Tim Eagle prior to the meeting.. Picture: Eric Cormack

He said: "I cannot welcome enough the reversal of the decision on grass cutting. This will be a welcome relief for our communities and allow us all to enjoy our outside spaces this summer.

"However, I am disappointed there are no firm assurances around public toilets which will be debated again in August."

On tax increases, Cllr Eagle added: "Many studies the council has done identified the problem of in-work poverty in Moray. These families will be disproportionally affected by rises in charges and council tax. We fought to protect them by keeping council tax down to just three per cent but were defeated by the independents and SNP who insisted on a higher inflation-busting increase."

Lorraine Paisey, the council's Chief Financial Officer, introduced the meeting by saying the budget "has been a moving target" with £1.62 million funding recently from the Scottish Government and a £900,000 increase in capital receipts.

Councillor Leadbitter then gave an update on the financial position. He said the savings target for the council this year is a little more than £3 million, compared to £10 million last February.

On council tax rises and budget re-instatements, Cllr Leadbitter said: "We continue to get strong feedback from people in Moray that they are willing to pay a little more to protect services as best as we can.

"This increase will see council tax in Moray continue to remain at around the mid-table point when compared to other councils in Scotland.

"Improvements in the council's finances have given us sufficient scope to re-instate the budget savings taken in February last year. We believe there is sufficient room for manoeuvre to re-introduce grass cutting to the standard that existed prior to last year's budget.

"On the recent decision on toilet closures, I want to emphasise we are committed to working with communities and outside organisations to find an alternative means of providing these services.

"That being said, I will commit to bringing back an update to councillors in August so the proposal can be reviewed with a view to either reversing or extending that closure plan if an alternative way forward has not progressed to a positive position."

Cllr Leadbitter said the council will continue to work with communities who may wish to continue with grass cutting they have taken on.

22 of the 26 councillors were present. Picture: Eric Cormack
22 of the 26 councillors were present. Picture: Eric Cormack

Councillor Derek Ross (Independent, Speyside-Glenlivet) also put forward an alternative budget at the meeting, but he had no seconder. His proposed council tax increase was 4 per cent, with grass cutting and toilet closures both to the front of his agenda.

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