Council Tax freeze recommended for sixth year in a row

The Highland Council is being recommended to freeze the Council Tax for a sixth successive year and confirm a budget of £548.436 million for 2013-14 when it meets on Thursday 7 February.

The Council Tax bands will remain: Band A: £775.33: Band B: £904.56;  Band C: £1,033.78; Band D: £1,163.00: Band E: £1,421.44; Band F: £1,679.89; Band G: £1,938.33; Band H: £2,326.00.

Savings of £11.612 million have been found in the coming financial year as have all but £3.3 million of the £12.157 million target savings for 2014/15.  The proposed budget for 2014/15 is £547.625 million.

Leading on the budget is Councillor Dave Fallows, Chair of the Finance Housing and Resources Committee.   His Highlights of the budget are: -

The Council, he said, had already set aside £1 million from balances in 2012/13 for the Community Challenge Fund launched in January 2013.

He said: “There can be few people who do not recognise that these are challenging economic times. However, I am pleased to report that the Council has been able to manage savings largely through increased efficiency and with minimal impact on existing services.  Once again, we asked the public for their views on a number of possible savings and those views have helped us considerably in forming this year’s budget and will continue to help in the next. Despite the financial pressures that we face, we have, this year, been able to target funding to key areas of frontline service delivery.”

He said the Council intended to formulate outline plans that look ahead for the full five year term of the Council.  He said: “This is to give partner agencies and the public a clear idea of how we will match our future finances to delivery of the Programme for the Council.  We remain committed to providing the very best services through continuing to become more efficient and challenging the way the Council delivers it wide range of essential services.”

He recognised the impact on jobs was always a concern. The net decrease in FTE posts in 2013/14 was estimated at 34.1. The loss of posts had to be seen in the context of the Council having 9,000 FTE staff and a good track record in managing vacancies and now a firm commitment to avoiding compulsory redundancies.

He said: “The Council is currently managing its vacancies to ensure that posts, which become vacant through the natural turnover of staff and are suitable for redeployment, are identified and held for that purpose in the first instance.  The impact on staff will be minimised by firstly seeking redeployment opportunities within the Council and redundancy or early retirement will only be used as a last resort and where no reasonable redeployment opportunity exists.”

In a report to the Council, Director of Finance, Derek Yule states that financial years 2013/14 and 2014/15 represent the final two years of the current Scottish Government Spending Review and Local Authority Grant Settlement period.

Public sector spending levels continued to be affected by austerity measures to tackle the economic downturn and reduce the UK’s debt, and inflation levels remained high relative to Government targets and funding levels.  All indications were that in the period beyond 2014/15, the UK public sector would face a continued period of austerity.

The total spend for the coming two years, he said,  was reduced due to the removal of £56 million worth of annual funding for Police and Fire budgets as the result of the transfer of these functions to new Single Services effective from 1 April.

He said the Council tax income assumed within his report was based upon an a collection level of 97.5%, an increase of 0.25% on that assumed in the previous financial year.  The increase was in line with actual levels of collections experienced for past years.  Despite the economic downturn, collection levels remained healthy. 

Current long-term empty domestic properties qualify for 10% reduction in their council tax charge. In line with the Council’s Programme commitment to bring empty properties back into use, it is recommended that the Council agrees to remove the existing 10% Council Tax reduction of long-term empty domestic properties and instead levy a full 100% Council tax charge with effect from 1 April 2013.  It is further proposed this situation is reviewed within the first year.  Any additional income will be retained locally with decisions on use to be considered by the Council.

The Council is also being commended to establish a fund of £4.3 million for “Strategic Change and Development”. The purpose of this Fund will be to:-

31 Jan 2013