Action Note
Budget Joint Ward Forum (Wards 12 and 22)
Nevis Centre, Fort William
31 May 2010 – 7pm

Present
Councillors:  David Alston; Michael Foxley; Donald Cameron, Bill Clark, Bren Gormley; Allan Henderson.
 

Organisations represented: Glencoe & Glen Etive Community Council; Lochaber High School Parent Council; Invernevis Action Group; Scottish Childminding Association; Lochaber Schools Pipe Band; South Lochaber Community Company; Ballachulish Community Council; Morvern Community Council; Lochaber Archive; Fusion/Caol Youth Centre; Ardnamurchan Youth Group; Outdoor Capital of the UK; Lochaber Community Care Forum; Nevis Centre.

 

Members of the public: 33 persons


 

Officials in attendance: Alistair Dodds; Alan Geddes; Bob Cameron; Emma Tayler; Dot Ferguson


 

Members of the Press: 2 persons


1    Apologies – Councillors Eddie Hunter and Brian Murphy

 

2    Councillor David Alston outlined the purpose behind the consultation, setting the  Council’s budget strategy in context.

 

Alan Geddes, Director of Finance gave a brief presentation which set the current  difficulties in the context of the overall financial situation being experienced in the  UK.  The presentation is attached.

 

3    The meeting broke into a number of discussion groups which considered the  following four main questions:

 

 - How can we use our community facilities differently?
 - How can we run services differently?
 - How can individuals and communities take more responsibility for  doing    

   things?
 - How can we keep our staff and borrowing costs down?

 

These round table responses will now be fed into the process to help inform the  consideration of options.

 

The budget consultation document and the further savings documents can be accessed at  /NR/rdonlyres/70E6E385-CC58-42A5-93A6-9421DF0C60E4/0/budgetconsultation.pdf  and /NR/rdonlyres/91811870-6BA3-45F5-938C-6CA1DE6F99FB/0/Furtherideasandinformationoncommunityfacilities.pdf


Note of Question and Answer Session


1 Introduction
The following is a note of questions asked and answers given in the public session of the Lochaber Wards Budget Forum meeting in Fort William on 31 May 2010.


Q1 Is it not possible to save money stopping expenditure on Gaelic road signs?
A1 The Council policy is to erect bi-lingual signs when replacement is required and so expenditure is lessened.   Trunk road signage is more costly to erect and the Trunk Road Authority has somewhat different policies than the Council.


Q2 Solutions put forward in the discussion papers involve cutting of services.   There is little indication of possible savings due to cuts in pensions etc.    Most private sector bodies no longer offer final salary pension schemes and it is thought that up to one-third of Council Tax goes towards paying pensions for Local Authority workers.   These workers can retire at 60 rather than at 68 which is more common in the private sector.   The Council should concentrate on its legal obligations and not increase Council Tax but live within its means.
A2 There is little doubt that public sector pension schemes are becoming less affordable.  However, these are negotiated nationally and Highland Council cannot change these.   Conditions have changed since the schemes were introduced and the Government is certainly looking at public sector pensions.  Default retirement age is 65.    The Council is aware of the need for efficiencies and has instituted a Corporate Improvement Programme to realise these.   The Corporate Improvement Programme could save up to £14m and possibly more.  It is important to continue to drive out costs without reducing front line services.


Q3 How much business experience is there within the Council to improve productivity?
A3 The Council has a whole range of skills and many managers have come to the Council from both private sector and other public sector bodies.   The Council is a large organisation with a £600m budget and 12,500 staff.   The Council has been audited by Audit Scotland who note that the Council is an improving one and that it is clear on how it is going to make improvements.   This was a large scale audit and it has produced a positive report.    In response to efficiencies, all Councils are required by the Scottish Government to make 2% savings and Highland Council has done this over the last 5 years but can still do more.


Q4 In relation to documentation provided, savings suggested are 12% reduction.   There is £36m to find and that represents an 8% reduction.   However the ECS saving No 8 relating to music tuition suggests a saving of £500k which is a 30% reduction and this is disproportionate.   On the Council Budget Leader’s blog, 12 items in the ECS savings were concerned with music tuition.
A4 Savings will always fall disproportionately in general across the piece.   Some of the suggestions coming up at tables tonight suggest that the Council can charge up to a certain point but not for examinations in music.   Suggestions have been made which might provide a way through the examination issue by not charging for core instruments but charging for other instruments.   The Council will investigate this to see what potential it has.



Q5 Staff costs have increased by 50% over the last decade.   The Council should be looking at the two-thirds of its budget that it spends on wages and staff costs rather than the one-third it spends on services.  A smaller cut in the two-thirds would achieve greater cash savings.  The Council should benchmark against the private sector to get suggestions for doing that.   Does the Council really need all the people it currently employs?   It may be worth taking a zero base of the year 2000 to see what has been added in terms of employment and what can be done without.   The approach should be top down and not bottom up.
A5 Half of the staff the Council employs are in schools.   The Council has made cuts in employment for example stripping out 8 Area Manager posts and reducing its area service structure.   The analysis given by the question is good but the budget has increased 100% since 1996.    However since that time the Council has reduced the number of Services and Directors from 15 to 7.   Two years ago it reduced its management costs by £1.5m and 25 senior managers.   The documents circulated suggest a further cut of £1m in management costs with the loss of up to 20 jobs.   The Council does look at best practice in public and private sector.   However it also needs to look at the range of services it provides.  Some Services certainly operate with too many layers within them.   Savings are proposed but it’s a matter of getting the right proportion.   The Council needs to be more effective and efficient which will mean the loss of staff.   For example cuts of 12% could mean a loss of 1000 to 1200 staff but it is important to realise that the wages of these staff are important to the Highland economy.   The Council has discussed its savings with Trade Unions but it is important to realise that relationships with the Unions are governed by National Agreements but the Council does seek to influence that on the basis that it is better to freeze pay and preserve jobs than increase pay and lose jobs.

 


Q6 Could the Council and other UK Local Authorities put pressure on the Government to increase taxes on banks due to their role in the current recession?
A6 The Council would agree with that in principle.   The Council has met with the Scottish Government Cabinet Secretary for Finance who was asked when the banks might pay back money loaned to them.   The response was that that might take 4-5 years time but the real question is how that money might be claimed back into the public sector.

 


Q7 In relation to music tuition, the suggestion is a reduction in staff from 35 to 20.   This is almost 50% and the suggestion is that access to staff will become more competitive.   In reality, however, this means that the staff time will rationed.   It is better to keep tutors and tuition in individual localities.   If tuition disappears in parts of the Highlands there is no-where else to go and this will have a significant cultural affect in the Highlands.
A7 This is noted and will be fed into discussions.


Q8 Why has the PPP scheme been abandoned?
A8 This is a matter for the Government.    The Government is looking at more cost effective schemes.   However the Council did build 15 new schools through the two schemes.   There are ongoing revenue costs for these over a 25 year period.   The Council in common with other Local Authorities is waiting for further information from the Government regarding the Scottish Futures Trust.   They are working on schemes which would give better value for money.   At the time the Council built schools through PPP, it was the only source of capital available.  Over the last two years the Council has borrowed to fund capital projects, which gives rise to some £800k in loan charges per year.   The Council continues to look at best value for its capital expenditure. 


 

Q9 Has the PPP scheme not been a disaster in that the costs will rise from £22m to £25m and then £50m by 2017?
A9 The figures are incorrect.   The costs are contractual for 25 years but they do not increase as suggested.


Q10 The Scottish Parliament costs have increased by 50%.  
A10 The Highland Council’s contract is different.


Q11 Can the figures be provided?
A11 Yes they can and will be passed back.


Q12 PPP presumably remains a drain on the Authority?
A12 The Council has schools which would not have been built without PPP.   In addition, community use is free out with school hours.   The Council also gets the schools passed to it in 25 years time in excellent condition.   All costs were included in the budget and the schemes are not typical of the rest of Scotland.   The Council got a good deal for its money.   The Scottish Government remain concerned about increased commitment elsewhere in Scotland as a legacy of PPP commitment.


Q13 The costs to the Council must be £1.6m per year for the schools.   This is a large cost.
A13 It is like a mortgage for which the Council must pay interest.   However the figures will be provided.


Q14 The suggestion in the document is that the Council might concentrate its effort in care homes in more remote rural areas.  Fort William should be considered such an area as it is too far for people to go to other areas with alternative provision being 50 or 60 miles away.
A14 It is agreed that the Council needs to look at local beds being available locally.


Q15 It is heartening to note that the Council will reduce travel and catering expenditure and the intention is to save some £78k of the Members’ budget.  However there is a meeting of the Ross, Skye and Lochaber Licensing Committee in Dingwall tomorrow for which Councillors will attend from all over the area.  In addition business is carried out in Dingwall, Portree and Inverness which is of no interest to Lochaber.   Will we get sight of Members’ expenses for 2009/2010?
A15 The expenses are being published on the web today.   Licensing Committee meetings are an issue.   The Council is seriously reviewing that at present and significant change is likely to result in reduced costs in travel.   However big travel costs to the Council often relate to travel to Edinburgh and significant effort is being made to reduce that.


Q16 It is noted that there is a National Agreement for pensions and wages.    However Edinburgh Airport and the Royal Infirmary are also National projects.   Is it not possible to get Lochaber District Council back through re-organisation?  Much of the information provided in the documentation for this evening’s meeting relates to communities and if District Councils were reinstated rather than the whole Highland Council, these would be closer to communities.
A16 Many things such as schools and roads and social work were provided by the Regional Council and not the District Council.    It was a UK Government decision to re-organise Local Government in Scotland.   It is thought that at the time of Local Government re-organisation the District Council had a budget less than is currently spent on Lochaber High School.


Q17 Does Highland Council not own significant numbers of properties?   If the Council was to dispose of Services, could not buildings be disposed of?
A17 Agreed.   The Corporate Improvement Programme does include a theme on asset management.    The Council certainly has too many buildings.   It has 1700 buildings some of which are not fit for purpose.   However we need to dispose of these at the right time for the market.   Judgement is also needed on whether we can co-locate Services in existing buildings and involve other public organisations in co-location.  The days of every public sector organisation building  its own buildings have gone.


Q18 Could the Council not make better use of Lochaber House and the Nevis Centre?
A18 Yes.   The future is Services in fewer buildings.   At the time of construction of the Ardnamurchan High School it was hoped to have a fire station built at the same time.     Lochaline Primary School now has a fire station on the same site and this has saved some £400k in capital and in revenue.  Other agencies are now looking strongly at sharing of facilities.


Q19 There is a need to look at Local Government re-organisation again.   The present system is not working.   The system has not brought Councillors closer to people.    The District Council was audited by the Accounts Commission and had no debt.   A two tier system should be introduced.
A19 Highland Council is not bankrupt and re-organisation is a matter for the Scottish Government.    It may be interesting to see what the new Scottish Parliament does following next year’s election.   The Accounts Commission recognise that Highland Council has good financial management.   That document is publicly available.   The current Government prefers to see Councils working together rather than re-organisation due to the cost of that.   It is at the end of the day a political issue.


Q20 Why does Highland Council not own its own building?
A20 It was not the Highland Council who signed the lease for the building.   It was the District Council.   The Council had looked at Fort William Waterfront Ltd taking over the liabilities of the Council but that has now failed.   The Council recognises it has a long lease and it cannot ignore that.   Unless the Council can change the lease we are stuck with what we inherited.   


Q21 I cannot see the building lasting 100 years.
A21 No comment.


The meeting was brought to a close at 9.30 pm.