The challenge of balancing Council savings and services

The measures being discussed include options for the closure of Tolsta and Eoligary schools.
The measures being discussed include options for the closure of Tolsta and Eoligary schools.

A detailed list of options for potential cuts to Comhairle services has been revealed with stark warnings for future provision should the Comhairle’s ‘Service Redesign’ process fail to deliver the savings needed.

Many Comhairle services are facing cuts of a quarter of their existing budgets as the council struggles to find nearly £10m in reductions over the next three years.

The options, detailed in a report backed by councillors, have been identified by department chiefs as areas for consideration but without specific commitment to making the service cuts proposed for discussion.

Alongside the list, the report outlines changes to the way the Comhairle may work in partnership with government and local agencies in the future to deliver a single island authority and with moves to decentralise some services to new ‘community hubs’.

COMMUNITY CONVERSATIONS

The Comhairle now plans a series of ‘community conversations’ to discuss the options, and to explore increased community involvement in the delivery of services that could, according to the report, mitigate the worst impacts of the cuts, and even improve some services if successful.

A Comhairle spokesperson said: “The principal community conversations are a mechanism to consider different ways to deliver services more effectively. Clearly, if we cannot achieve this then the Comhairle will have to look at service reduction/cuts.

“Service redesign is not about avoiding cuts, though we would hope to do so where possible. It is fairly obvious that if you take £10m out of circulation then there will be impacts. The point is to ensure we make the very best use of the resources we have to ensure those impacts are mitigated as far as possible.

“Also, it’s not all about community delivery only. It has to be set in the context of all the work in the public sector – sharing resources via charters and the work towards a Single Island Partnership.”

FINANCIAL CHALLENGES

The Comhairle has stated this week that the options outlined in the report were ‘used to illustrate the implications of various approaches to financial constraints’, and in each case, consideration is given in the report to the implications of a cut, the possibility of partnership and opportunities for growth’.

The Comhairle’s spokesperson added: “The Comhairle has made it clear on numerous occasions, in line with all other Authorities in Scotland, that the financial challenges for Local Government are serious. However, the Comhairle is committed to protect front line services and work in partnerships to seek alternative ways to achieve necessary savings.

“There are no current proposals for service reduction and it would be scaremongering to suggest this.”

The biggest savings outlined for discussion in the report could be made to the Comhairle’s schools budget, with a cut of nearly £2.5m being required.

The savings will be made in this financial year (£430k), and in 2020/21 (£2.04m). The school’s budget is the Comhairle’s biggest area of spend.

OPTION FOR CLOSURE OF TOLSTA AND EOLIGARY SCHOOLS

The measures being discussed include options for the closure of Tolsta and Eoligary schools, a reduction in support services and staffing, including auxiliaries and support staff for those with additional support needs (ASN), a reduction in curriculum choice, a review of school management structures, and the loss of all itinerant teaching provision.

The Education Department is ‘undertaking community conversations to explore the possibility of local communities taking responsibility for ASN [Additional Special Needs] and School Transport provision’, and explores the possibility of the service being delivered by volunteers in the future.

The school estate could be ‘rationalised’ under the plans to create community service hubs and ‘satellite’ service provision, providing locations for staff and community services throughout the islands.

OPTIONS FOR OTHER SERVICES

Transportation Services is facing a cut of £1.65m by 2019/2020, and the Comhairle’s roads and infrastructure budget is also set to lose a quarter of its budget, with a saving of over £800k being identified by 2021/22.

Discussions are underway on all options for the future of the Comhairle-backed inter-island air services and of local bus services.

Children’s Services could be cut under the proposals by more than £750k by 2020/21, and the Comhairle has earmarked a potential saving of £587k from its Early Years Education budget of £2.34m.

Waste and Cleaning Services is facing successive cuts of £570k in both this and next financial years, with options for discussion including a reduction in the frequency of waste collection and changes to the collection of recycled waste being explored. In addition proposals could see Saturday recycled waste collections in Lewis and Harris being introduced.

The Comhairle is also exploring the feasibility and savings potential of introducing disposal of waste directly from Uist and Barra to mainland sites.

The report confirms that a surcharge for third-party waste contracts would also be explored under the options for review.

Cost increases for the maintenance of cemeteries are likewise being discussed.

The Community Services budget, which delivers community learning, youth services and sports development, could lose more than £700k over the next two years.

Cuts to the housing budget would see a reduction of £102k over the next two years, and the budget for apprentices is facing the potential loss of £81k in 2021/22.

Changes to the Corporate Services provision could see the removal of janitors from all schools ‘with the exception of secondary schools and WISP schools’.

The Comhairle will consult on a transfer to communities of management of all school lets, and with all estate management functions being transferred to the Technical Services department.

STAFFING LEVELS

Other changes to the department’s staffing and finance function, could see a reduction in staff levels, but with significant impacts as the services has ‘some of the highest levels of lower paid workers many of which are female and hardest hit by austerity measures’.

Options are being explored for the redevelopment of Castlebay School with new land being acquired to include new pre-school, primary and secondary accommodation alongside relocated council and college facilities.

A raft of additional options for changes to the Corporate Services Department, including the transfer of management of the library service to the Education department (saving £177k) could see the development of community service hubs.

Options for staff cuts in the Economic Development service could see the loss of 11 full time posts, saving £670k, and proposals could be advanced that would close the Comhairle’s investment fund, saving £335k, but with the impact of ‘removing all support for tourism, arts, crofting etc.’

KEEN TO PARTICIPATE IN DISCUSSION

The Comhairle’s spokesperson added: “It is as difficult for the Comhairle, as it is for other Authorities. However, it may be possible and on that basis we hope to work with staff, communities and other partners to find new ways to address these challenges. It is not an approach based on communities filling gaps.

And concluded: “The Comhairle, like any local Authority, is facing these challenges. We would expect people would be concerned and on that basis, keen to participate in a discussion to explore ways of addressing the problem. It would be inappropriate and not consistent with the Comhairle’s record to suggest or promote community alarm.”