Council wants help to pay referendum overtime bill

An overtime bill running to tens of thousands of pounds has been created by staff ­registering people to vote in the Scottish independence referendum.
People registering to vote caused bill. Picture: Lisa FergusonPeople registering to vote caused bill. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
People registering to vote caused bill. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

Workers at the Lothian Joint Valuation Board, which oversaw Edinburgh’s role in the September vote, tallied up £70,000 worth of extra hours attempting to cope with filing the unprecedented influx of voter registration forms.

The board also faced an unforeseen £45,000 worth of postage costs – having received a combined 39,000 postal votes from across the Lothians.

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Nationwide, analysts say local authorities came up £700,000 over budget because of the referendum. Now, Lothian officials are looking to recover its £115,000 share of those costs by getting the Scottish Government to pay the bill. But if they refuse, the expenses will be passed to councils.

Joan Hewton, an assessor with the Joint Valuation Board, said: “The Scottish independence referendum represented one of the most significant electoral events in recent times, and as a result the workload within the organisation reached levels never before experienced.

“To deal effectively with the workload created by the referendum, staff were required to work overtime.

“An application has been made to the Scottish Government to recover those costs. If the Government does not come through, those costs would be split between the four councils.” According to a spokeswoman for the Scottish Government, local authorities shouldn’t hold their breath – Holyrood has vowed only to help cover the extra expense of extending the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds, which cost around £440,000 nationally.

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And as Ms Hewton has already suggested “very little” of the Lothian area’s pre-
referendum registration turnout stemmed from teen voters, it is unknown whether the government will reimburse local authorities at all.

A spokeswoman for Midlothian Council said she was confident the extra expenses would not directly impact taxpayers, adding: “We are aware of these additional costs, but at this time the board is projecting a small net underspend for the year and so do not foresee a call for additional funding.”

City Councillor Gavin Corbett, Green finance spokesperson, said he hoped Holyrood would step in to help fill that gap – but added the extra bill was a small price to pay for the referendum’s massive boost to voter engagement.

He said: “Other countries in the UK would jump at the chance to have the kind of voter turnout figures which Scotland had during the referendum, so it’s important that the Scottish Government steps in to meet the extra costs.

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“In election after election, commentators bemoan low voter turnout and political disinterest. Now we can see if there is something real at stake – like the future vision for Scotland – people will take part in droves.”