West Lothian Council attempts to bridge £65m shortfall with 2018/19 budget

Council leader Councillor Lawrence Fitzpatrick

A long-term financial plan that will focus on priority areas such as schools, social care and services for vulnerable people and begin to bridge a £65 million budget gap over the next five years has been agreed by West Lothian Council.

The council budget for 2018/19 has outlined investment of over £408m to deliver local services.

Key areas of investment include funding for Discretionary Housing Payments to mitigate the impact of the ‘bedroom tax’; social care and health initiatives; funding for homelessness and continuing to pay the Living Wage to council staff, social care contractors and West Lothian leisure staff.

The Scottish Government, which provides the council with 80% of its funding, has given the council a real terms decrease in core funding of £7.5m for 2018/19. However, West Lothian’s population is expected to increase by 10,000 over the next five years. This, combined with rising costs for services, means that the council’s budget gap totals nearly £14m for 2018/19 and £65m over the next five years (2018/19 – 2022/23).

To enable the council to balance its budget a number of changes have been approved to existing services, including a 3% Council Tax increase across all bands in 2018/19, the first in the region for over ten years.

The council also anticipates that net staffing numbers over the next five years will reduce overall by around 134 full time equivalent (FTE) staff members which equates to 2% of the council’s total workforce.

It is estimated that an additional 641 FTE staff will be required to meet growth in some areas, including an additional 213 FTE teaching staff to meet projected increases in school rolls and an additional 340 FTE to deliver national childcare commitments, with an additional 87 FTE for school lunches.

Over the five years, it is estimated that there will be a reduction of 775 FTE.

From 1 April 2018, the council is also introducing charges for developers/housebuilders for new waste collections bins and will establish a social care contributions policy where all non-residential care clients would be financially assessed to calculate the maximum contribution they might be expected to make to their care. The financial assessment will also include a benefits check for income maximisation to ensure that clients are receiving all the benefits that they are entitled to.

Speaking after the council budget meeting, leader of West Lothian Council, Councillor Lawrence Fitzpatrick, said: “Next year the council will invest a further £408 million in West Lothian’s public services. Prioritising key areas such schools, roads, social care and care for vulnerable people.

“The council’s aim is to continue to build upon our successes to date with £154m being invested in education next year, over £105m on social services, and around £62m on maintaining West Lothian’s roads, paths, open spaces, waste services, community facilities and infrastructure.”

Councillor Fitzpatrick added: “We are no different to any other Scottish council in that we cannot spend what we don’t have, and changes to services are inevitable given the scale of the cuts to our budget.

“By the end of this five-year period, the council will have had to cut around £157m from its budget in a fifteen-year period. The figures are stark and illustrate the challenges that we face.

“This is not of our making and nobody at the council wants to make cuts however, we can only spend the funding we have available. The council must, legally, provide statutory services and we have an increasing number of elderly and younger people in West Lothian that need council services.

“Scottish Government Grant funding is insufficient to meet the increasing costs and demand for services.

“Not balancing the budget is not an option, and it comes down to making the best choices for our local communities.

“The council will continue to build upon a sound and solid foundation and to improve local services in West Lothian.

“We believe that we are one of the best placed local authorities in Scotland in terms of our future financial and corporate planning. We’ve consulted with local people on proposed budget measure and our future priorities, and we’ve taken decisions based on the feedback that we received.”