Budget squeeze prompts call for tax increase

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Tightening the belt to meet the new financial reality is the herculean task currently being tackled by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar.

The relentless squeeze on local government funding with a cut of 3.5% this year compared to 2015/16 means a massive £9.8m needs to be cut from the Islands’ local authority budget in 2016/17 in order to balance the books.

The questions of what to cut and where is currently being unpicked via a series of public consultation meetings between Council members, officials and islanders taking place throughout this week.

In striving to meet this target a raft of 31 proposals have been tabled for discussion and debate, however even if all these proposals go through, in actual fact the books will still be in the red to the tune of £1.5m in 2016/17 and £3.6m in 2017/18.

A magnifying glass is being trained on budgets such as road maintenance, public facilities, care requirements and car parking.

At one of the first face to face public meetings in Barvas on Monday evening it was suggested that perhaps people would not mind paying a little more in order to retain important services.

One of topics which particularly galvanised the gathering was the proposal that specialist teaching for music, art and P.E in primary schools should be discontinued.

However this was firmly rejected by parents who do not want this educational advantage touched, there were points made that taking this resource out of Western Isles schools will lead to an elitist outcome, with only those children whose parents can afford private tuition able to develop artistic, musical or sporting talents.

This particular proposal has also gathered forceful wider opposition with a recently established online petition ‘Do not cut Music, Art and Gym itinerant teachers from CNES Primary Schools’ which so far has attracted 600 supporters.

Yet a satisfactory solution to retain this specialist teaching could already be taking shape.

A suggestion was tabled at the Barvas meeting that these teachers could remain in schools, but instead of being supported by this current Itinerant Teacher funding pot, they could be absorbed into the general pool of primary school teachers and funded via this budget stream instead.

A further meeting in the Council chambers on Thursday evening led to a heated exchange over the proposal to reduce support for the respite service for those with additional support needs, with a member of the public storming out of the meeting in anger, after making their opposition to this budget choice clear.

In the last five years constrained funding for local government has resulted in the loss of 290 council jobs with concerns raised of a resultant knock-on effect to the wider Western Isles economy.

With financial pressures continuing to mount councillors seem to be caught between a rock and a hard place in this recent round of budget cuts, and there has been a call for the Scottish Government to introduce a 1p increase on income tax to alleviate the overwhelming cuts facing local authorities in Scotland.

Stornoway councillor Charlie Nicolson pointed to information from HMRC that a 1p in the pound increase would raise around £475m across Scotland which could be used to protect and enhance local services.

The impact of the increase for someone earning £15,000 a year would be less than £1 per week, whilst a £50,000 earner would pay less than £8 per week, depending on individual circumstances.

Cllr. Nicolson added: “The cuts in services in the Western Isles and across Scotland will affect the most vulnerable in our communities.

“By paying slightly more in income tax we could protect services and jobs which are vital to the economy of these islands. The less well-off would not have to pay any increase but would benefit from the services.

“Most people I have spoken to would be in favour of such a move which would counter the austerity programme that has meant cuts for the Scottish Government and Councils having to reduce services.

Budget choice information is now available on the Comhairle website: at

The consultation will run until Friday 29 January 2016 and all submissions will be presented to Elected Members as part of the Budget Setting process in February.