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Tory and Labour budget agreement leads to 5% Moray Council Tax rise

By Lewis McBlane

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MORAY'S Labour and Conservative groups joined forces to pass this year's Council budget.

Council Leader Councillor Kathleen Robertson (Forres, Conservative) and Labour group leader Councillor Sandy Keith (Elgin North).
Council Leader Councillor Kathleen Robertson (Forres, Conservative) and Labour group leader Councillor Sandy Keith (Elgin North).

The budget, proposed by Moray Council's Conservative administration, was changed to include all of Labour's proposed measures in exchange for their support.

Moray's two independent councillors also supported the joint budget.

Council Tax will rise by five per cent as a result.

This means a Band C household will pay £60 more a year, while a Band H household will pay £166 more.

Council Leader Councillor Kathleen Robertson (Forres, Conservative) said the rise was more than previously expected, but still below inflation.

A range of cuts were also proposed in the budget to reduce the Council's shortfall to around £15 million, which will be plugged with remaining Covid relief money.

For lending their votes to the Conservatives, the Labour group secured a commitment to set up a £500,000 Education Investment Fund.

The joint budget will also reverse the proposed closure of the Council's Employee Assistance Programme, which promotes staff wellbeing, secured a £20,000 donation to Moray Food Bank and a £5000 donation to the Turkey and Syria Earthquake relief effort.

A £120,000 fund, with £15,000 for each ward, will also be reinstated which councillors can distribute for small projects.

Speaking after party group discussions, Moray Labour leader Sandy Keith said he was pleased with the agreement but: "didn't necessarily expect to be in this position today."

The joint budget was pitted against an SNP proposal and passed by 15 votes to 10, with one abstention.

The SNP's budget proposal included measures to support people in fuel poverty, bolster Moray's youth workers and community wardens and abandon plans to scrap a Council climate change role.

After the Conservative-Labour budget agreement was first mentioned, SNP co-leader Councillor Graham Leadbitter (Elgin South, SNP) said: "Being an apologist for UK government economic mismanagement is, I don't think, particularly becoming for the Labour Party.

"But that is their choice."

Before the vote, Council chief financial officer Lorraine Paisey gave members a stark warning about this year's economic pressures and said next year would be worse.

She said: "Across the amendments we are seeing a key trend – and that trend is for increased spend.

"And, although some members have recognised in their speeches the difficult situation in which the Council finds itself...we are looking at a structural deficit of £15 million this financial year and we are projecting to have to find savings of £20 million in the financial year after that.

"That is a very, very significant sum to find and a great challenge for the Council."

Council deputy leader Donald Gatt said that despite the future looking "bleak" as a result of limited Scottish Government funding, there were positives.

He also reacted to the budget providing an extra £300,000 to maintain and repair roads.

He said: "The budget is rather tame this year.

"But thankfully cuts to popular public services such as swimming pools, libraries and public toilets, to name only three, have been avoided for this year.

"So without significant increases in core funding, the financial outlook for Scottish Local Authorities such as Moray appears bleak.

"Despite the very tight financial settlement, I am pleased colleagues have acknowledged the ongoing situation with potholes blighting our roads."

Council civic leader Councillor John Cowe (Independent, Heldon and Laich) gave a warning to fellow members about the impact of a financial collapse at the Council.

Cllr Cowe, who ended up supporting the budget, said: "We continue to draw on reserves and that is unsustainable.

"They are supposed to be for a rainy day, and it is pouring.

"Constantly, further burdens are put upon us, adding considerably to the challenge of balancing each year's budget.

"For years, this Council and many others have cried wolf.

"Finding it increasingly difficult to produce a balanced budget.

"That even after cutting services and overheads by nearly £60 million over the last 10 years.

"Now the wolf is on the doorstep, waiting to pounce.

"And if we fail, the wolf will cross that doorstep.

"Civil servants, with their briefcases and pens, to decimate the services we take pride in on behalf of the public we serve.

"I ask my fellow Councillors to be cautious and to be prudent in what they ask for.

"Because at the end of the day, those we serve who will pick up the tab."

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