Biggest challenge in years says Midlothian Council chief

The head of Midlothian Council has described the current cost of living crisis as the biggest challenge she has ever experienced in public service.

Dr Grace Vickers was speaking as a meeting of councillors was told the budget gap facing the local authority this year had risen to £11.7 million.

A report on the council’s proposed strategic plan for the next five years set out a bleak prospect. It said as well as the expected overspend on this year’s budget, a further gap of £13.4m was expected next year rising to £26.2m in 2027/28. Councillors heard the anticipated pay rise for staff, inflation rates and energy prices all contributed to the pressure to deliver public services.

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Dr Vickers told elected members the “extremely challenging” fiscal environment that lies ahead was “a more challenging environment than I have ever experienced in my years as a public servant”.

Midlothian Council chief executive Dr Grace Vickers.

Council leader Kelly Parry (SNP) hit out at the recent mini budget presented by the UK Government and its impact on the economy.

She said: “This is the most challenging budget situation I have ever seen in my term as a councillor over the last seven years. It is really disappointing to see the absolute recklessness which will undoubtedly have an impact on this year’s budget and possibly further still given the uncertainty in economic markets.

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"This has become an even more challenging situation than it even was last week and it feels like with every single day that passes it becomes even more challenging.”

Councillor Derek Milligan, Labour Group leader, warned elected members tough decisions lay ahead which would make the local authority “the most unpopular council” of all time.

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He added: “We have had higher numbers in front of us where we have had to make saving but we have already taken what people would call the low hanging fruit through efficiency savings, for want of a better word, with a lot of efficiency savings a reduction in public services or loss of a whole service.”

Councillors were asked to approve the Midlothian Strategic Plan to go out to public consultation however concerns were raised about some of the goals included in the plan.

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Councillor Milligan was critical of some of the proposals with statements about reducing poverty at a time when it was on the increase and future investment plans.

He said: “We talk about continuing to invest in our open spaces, our town centres and areas like that.

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“These are all the areas that are left in the budget that we can reduce and that we are, quite frankly, going to have to reduce so how can we go out with this.

“We have to be honest and realistic with the public.”

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Councillor Stuart McKenzie said it was right that the council had goals and targets in its plans but said they were more aspirational than guarantees.

It was agreed to review the plan’s wording to ensure the targets were clearly described as aspirations rather than commitments before it is put out to public consultation.