A COUNCIL leader faced with having to slash local services because of reduced Scottish Government funding has branded the proposed cuts “an attack on society itself”.
Midlothian Council is currently consulting on a package of measures which includes closing libraries, moving to three-weekly bin collections, cutting the number of football pitches, reducing road maintenance, scrapping the taxi card scheme for disabled people, increasing charges for school meals, scrapping lollipop patrols and halving the number of school janitors.
The council expects lower government funding to leave a budget shortfall for next financial year of £13.5 million. Over the next five years it is likely to reach almost £45m.
Council officials have drawn up the list of cuts in a bid to bridge the gap.
But Derek Milligan, Labour council leader, said: “It’s horrendous. This is an attack on society itself.
“I think people are absolutely horrified at the areas we’re having to look at because of the Scottish Government cuts.”
Councillor Milligan said the government spending squeeze came when demand for services in Midlothian was growing.
Pupil numbers are projected to almost double from 12,258 to 23,169 by 2035. And the over-65 population is due to rise from 13,300 to 20,200 by 2028.
Cllr Milligan said: “It’s the perfect storm in Midlothian. We have the highest number of one to 15-year-olds in the country and the fourth-highest number of over-75s. That means huge demands on our education and care services. But they are cutting our budget rather than increasing it to meet the growth we have to take.”
The proposals include a council tax increase of three per cent, the maximum allowed by the Scottish Government.
“If I was free to do it I would put it up even further to protect vulnerable services,” said Cllr Milligan. “This is society we are talking about here.”
The council currently runs nine libraries and has already saved £120,000, but the proposal would involve cutting back to just one central library, closing the rest and pulling out of the mobile library it shares with East Lothian.
Under the proposed cuts, blue bins would still be picked up fortnightly to maximise recycling and food bins would be emptied weekly. A £35 charge would be introduced for garden waste collections.
Some of the 55 grass pitches and 13 astro pitches maintained by the council could be offered to local clubs to maintain and others would be turned into woodland or allotments.
An audit of Midlothian’s roads found a £1m gap in funding just to keep them in their current state of repair. The council acknowledges the proposal to reduce maintenance would see the condition of the roads deteriorate faster.
The taxi card scheme, currently used by 826 disabled people, is already closed to new entrants, but the proposal is to stop it altogether.
The council says lollipop patrols are not a statutory service, but accepts there would be “genuine road safety concerns” if they were removed.
The list of measures also includes a ten per cent cut in learning assistants – 12 posts; stopping weekend street sweeping in town centres; scrapping the council’s pest control service; charging for musical instrument tuition; increasing parking charges where they exist and introducing them where they do not; and reducing poolside lifeguard cover at Newbatte, Lasswade, Loanhead and Penicuik.
Cllr Milligan said: “What is in front of us are officer cuts. We are talking to staff, the public, voluntary sector and users.
“Once we have done that we will put forward our proposals – but officers are saying to me if we want to take any of the cuts out we will have to find alternative measures that produce the same amount of money to put back in. The Scottish Government needs to take a decision on whether they want a caring society or whether they want to inflict more and more austerity on us.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The Scottish Government has treated local government very fairly despite the cuts to the Scottish budget from the UK government.
“Councils will receive funding through local government finance settlement of more than £10.4 billion for 2017/18. Taken together with a range of other measures this amounts to £383 million – or 3.7 per cent – in additional support for local authority services compared to 2016/17. Midlothian Council’s share of this total amounted to an extra £6.8m or 4.3 per cent.”