The annual budget setting process is an incredibly complex operation for a local authority. This year, for Aberdeen City Council, the difficulty has been magnified by the increasing financial challenges we face.
Reduced general revenue grant funding from the Scottish Government coupled with increased ring-fencing to meet Scottish Government priorities as well as rising costs and growing demand for services are the primary factors that led to a funding gap of £41.2million being identified for 2019/20.
Despite the enormous obstacles we face as a Council, our ambitions for a city where everyone can prosper are not dented.
To fulfil our shared aims the Council, our partners and the city’s stakeholders will have to display the familiar Aberdonian traits of resilience, pragmatism and determination. We’re committed to working closely with community partners, residents and businesses to continue delivering for all those we serve.
With the challenges faced and the many difficult decisions that have had to be made, we have set a budget which protects the most vulnerable in our communities and supports equality of opportunities – with a particular focus on young people.
We have balanced our social ambitions with our role in driving inclusive economic growth through innovation and investment.
The budget agreed in the Council chamber last week is as much about the things we have chosen not to do as those we will pursue.
Each year elected members are presented with a raft of savings options. Although we had to accept many, including some unpalatable proposals, we have been able to reject a number of options in relation to revenue spend that were understandably causing concern in our communities. These include:
- Retaining library provision at current levels and protecting the city’s network of community libraries;
- Keeping public toilets open, opting against proposals to achieve cost savings by closing facilities;
- Retaining school crossing patrollers and community wardens;
- Protecting external funding to a number of key third sector and community organisations who were the subject of a funding review.
- Rejecting an additional £2m funding reduction for Sport Aberdeen, which would have led to the closure of leisure facilities throughout the city.
In our capital budget we have recognised the transformation of the city is a vital part of our economic strategy and that will gather momentum in the year ahead as we welcome the opening of The Event Complex Aberdeen, a facility which will be the envy of cities worldwide, as well as the refurbished Aberdeen Art Gallery.
Following decisions taken at the budget meeting, funding has been pledged to allow work to begin on the reinvigoration of Union Terrace Gardens and many other major infrastructure projects will also take shape, including plans for four new schools.
The headline from the housing budget is that plans to create 2,000 new Council homes will take significant steps forward in the year ahead after decisions made at this week’s meeting, an acknowledgement of the crucial role housing has in our vision for the city. Tens of millions of pounds of improvements to existing Council properties have also been approved to improve quality of life for our tenants.
The Common Good Fund budget includes more than £3m of funding for good causes and initiatives that will benefit the city, with access to funding to be made easier for future years with the introduction of a new application process.
The money we spend across all of our budgets is being targeted to make the best use of decreasing resources, aligned to the Local Outcome Improvement Plan shared with our community planning partners.
On the other side of the budget, we considered a wide range of options for increasing expenditure to help bridge the £41.2m funding gap.
Each local authority has been given the discretion to raise Council Tax rates by up to 4.79% and we have opted for a 4.5% rise in Aberdeen. A variety of other local fees and charges will also be subject to increases to ensure a balanced budget, although we rejected the most severe of the proposed rises.
We will continue to push to become more efficient, embracing technology to better meet the needs of customers and staff.
The Council has instructed the Chief Executive to make contact with the Scottish Government both to confirm the council’s commitment to seeking the power to introduce a transient visitor levy, which has yet to be devolved to local authorities, and to request devolution in relation to statutory charges which we cannot alter.
We also reiterated during the budget debate our request to the Scottish Government, which was rejected, to retain the £28m of business rates income in Aberdeen which is above the figure of our settlement for 2018/19.
As a Council we will continue to fight for a fairer deal for Aberdeen to ease the short-term issues and push for the devolution of powers and more freedom around economic levers to support the long-term aspirations for the city – a place where everyone can prosper.
Cllr Jenny Laing and Cllr Douglas Lumsden