The leader of West Dunbartonshire Council says he has no desire to play a blame game, as the local authority faces its biggest ever financial crisis.
In December it was revealed that West Dunbartonshire Council faces a budget black hole of £21million – with decisions taken by the leading Labour administration, including the introduction of council-led parking enforcement, cuts to school transport provisions and hours at recycling centres, so far closing that to £14.5m.
However, Councillor Martin Rooney has warned that, without further funding from Holyrood, the local authority will face savage cuts that impact key services if it’s forced to close the gap by March.
Councillor Rooney extended an invite to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her deputy, John Swinney, to see the reality of the situation on the ground facing WDC. But insisted now was not the time to play political games.
In a sit down with the Lennox Herald, the veteran Lomond Ward councillor answered tough questions about the local authority’s financial position.
Outlining the stark reality of the situation facing members at Church Street, he said: “We are in the worst position we’ve ever been in as a council.
“To be fair to the previous SNP administration they weren’t properly funded either. So it’s the council which has missed out and our citizens and communities who have lost out.
“It’s not a political thing where the Labour or SNP administrations are to blame. Because it’s our whole area that is impacted.
“Actions of the UK and Scottish Government have impacted us.
“But the main aspect for me is that the Scottish Government does not properly fund West Dunbartonshire. And that was the same for the previous administration as it is for us.
“The previous administration used reserves and kicked the can down the road. That’s acceptable. You build up reserves and then use them to help the council during difficult times.
“But when you become reliant on it to the extent that you leave a £13.8m budget gap in the next year then you end up where we were in December.
“We used to set three-year budgets giving people stability and security. Now it’s a firefighting exercise every 12 months.”
Councillor Rooney highlighted what he believes is the root of the council cash crunch which has come to a head this year.
He said: “In 2022/23 the Scottish Government got a significant cash increase from the UK Government, but cut our core funding. They got around £4.6bn extra.
“The Scottish Government overcommitted their budget and claimed there was a £1.7bn shortfall, but the Fraser of Allander institute suggested the cost pressure was less than £1bn.
“The Scottish Government cut back on some previously approved projects that had not been spent. It received £1.68bn cost-of-living uplift in 2022/23.
“For 2023/24 the Scottish Government had a 6.2 percent uplift in funding, but have cut core funding to local government in Scotland despite local government being part of the claim for additional support.
“Some extra funding has come to the council, but it’s to fund existing Scottish Government priorities.
“The Scottish Government at stage one of the budget was cutting WDC’s core funding by at least £270,000, but this can change over the budget process.
“All 32 council leaders, of all parties, have written to the Scottish Government calling for more funding for Scottish councils.”
The budget situation was made even worse by Liz Truss’ disastrous mini-budget during her ill-fated 44 day premiership. Councillor Rooney explained: “The UK Government, in their disastrous mini-budget, put interest rates up. That added another £1.6m to our budget gap.”
At a meeting with other council leaders organised by COSLA (Convention of Scottish Local Authorities), Councillor Rooney says potential options to make the cuts less savage were explored and put to Holyrood chiefs. But so far they’ve fallen on deaf ears.
“I would be absolutely delighted for the First Minister or Deputy First Minister to visit West Dunbartonshire and look at any aspect of our services,” he said.
“It would be good to get ministers along to see our services. Some of the stuff we do is sector leading.
“I don’t know if the First Minister will come, though. All 32 council leaders unanimously agreed at COSLA calling for additional resources from the Scottish Government.
“We’ve had a campaign on that where we identified £1bn for local authorities. £18m of that would come to West Dunbartonshire which would more or less solve our budget issues.
“We’ve invited the Deputy First Minister to attend a COSLA meeting, but so far he has refused. If we can’t get the deputy FM to turn up to speak to the 32 council leaders in COSLA then I don’t see anyone popping along to West Dunbartonshire. But the FM or deputy FM would be most welcome any time they want. I’m sure there would be a lot of great interest to them both here.”
Admitting that the cut options – set to be published next month – will cause distress and anxiety, Councillor Rooney said the challenge facing the Labour administration is ensuring the local authority doesn’t face another situation like this again.
Whilst job losses are inevitable, he has pledged to keep them to a minimum.
“We need to build up this council not just for this budget, but for the next five years. We need to reset the clock,” he said.
“Our big focus over our first year in charge has been to build resilience.
“A £21m budget gap, at face value, represents around a nine percent cut in our services. Currently the funding for what we provided in 2022/23 will reduce by eight or nine percent. That’s massive.
“We’re having to deal with nine percent in one year just to get the budget balanced. It’s astronomical.
“We’ve never had this in the history of West Dunbartonshire.
“It’s perfectly understandable that all the public see is Labour back in charge, they have been left a budget gap and they have to address it. In people’s minds they will see Labour imposing cuts.
“But the austerity comes from Holyrood.
“Our challenge is to set a budget for the next five years.
“These decisions impact everyone in the council.
“Whether you’re in the administration or the opposition everyone is impacted by the cuts. And no councillor is elected to make cuts.
“The only thing we do have an element of control.
“We are able to ask, what is the impact on jobs? What is the impact on services? What is the impact on the council as an organisation?
“It is very hard. We went through the budget as a group and we didn’t want to do any of the options.
“When you’re cutting any job it’s vital to remember that you’re talking about a direct impact on lives and livelihoods. We do acutely feel it.
“I always try and think about the impact it will have on an individual’s family, their children. It’s not just the financial impact, it’s the fact they could lose their pension. They could lose out on clubs for their kids, it will impact the clothes they buy and the shops they visit.
“We want to minimise job losses and ensure the public still get a service. As a major employer there’s a big responsibility on us to get these decisions right.”
In response, Deputy First Minister John Swinney said: “In the most challenging budget settlement since devolution, the Scottish Government are providing over £13.2 billion in the 2023-24 Local Government Settlement.
“Following the flat-cash position set out in the resource spending review, we have listened to councils and are now increasing the resources available to local government next year by over £570million.
“In 2023-24, West Dunbartonshire Council will receive £227million to fund local services, which equates to an extra £13.5million to support vital day-to-day services or an additional 6.3 percent compared to 2021-22.
“In addition all councils will receive their fair share of the currently undistributed sum of £225million.
“I can confirm that the Scottish Government will continue to press the UK Government for urgent additional funding for our joint priorities and would welcome support from COSLA and individual local authorities.
“I can also assure you that the Scottish Government is committed to working in partnership with local government to ensure that the people of Scotland continue to receive the high-quality public services that they deserve.”
Reason to be cheerful
Despite being faced with its biggest ever financial challenge, the leader of West Dunbartonshire Council believes the future remains bright for the locality.
Councillor Martin Rooney was keen to highlight the positive work ongoing locally – including multi-million pound projects aimed at breathing new life into depleted town centres in Dumbarton and Alexandria.
The Labour member also explained that the local authority is keen to attract new people to the area – with West Dunbartonshire’s population both falling and ageing.
He told the Lennox: “There are definitely reasons to be cheerful in West Dunbartonshire.
“Regeneration is one of the areas where we have been particularly successful.
“There will be £22.5m invested into Dumbarton through the UK Government’s Levelling Up fund. That means we will demolish part of the Artizan Centre. One of the sites is for redevelopment and another is for housing.
“There is improvement happening there.
“The Alexandria Masterplan was aspirational. Some elements are funded, some aren’t and some have already been completed.
“I understand that there were issues around that with the impact of the road closures on businesses.
“Some parts are controversial like the Lidl development in the Vale.
“The previous SNP convenor wanted an anchor store in Mitchell Way so people were drawn into the town for shopping rather than going to Dumbarton.
“If Lidl are successful it will provide another shopping facility and local jobs.”
Attracting new people to the area is a key aim for the Labour administration.
Martin concluded: “Our population is falling and ageing. The gap between old and young is widening.
“We need to attract more young people and more professional people to the area.
“Bringing more people into the area will sustain local shops and businesses.
“We know we have to make the right decisions in March. The decisions we make in March will set us up for the decades to come.
“We have a responsibility to our citizens to make this a great place to live, work and visit.”