A nine-year council tax freeze in Aberdeenshire has ended after councillors narrowly agreed a new £540million budget which will increase bills across the board.
The SNP-Labour Partnership administration was faced with making savings of £24million in the next financial year after receiving a lower than expected settlement from the Scottish Government.
In response, the Partnership proposed increasing council tax by 2.5% for all bands, on top of rises on bands E-H already announced by the government.
The administration’s budget was backed at a meeting in Woodhill House by 33 votes to 32.
Co-leader Alison Evison said that after the “stability” of a nine-year tax freeze it was the “opportune time” to revisit the policy.
“We have taken the decision to propose a 2.5% increase, a rise of £28 a year for Band D,” the Labour councillor said.
“We do not take these decisions lightly, but with the increased cost and demand on our services, a reducing basic grant settlement from the Scottish Government and a major programme of savings already on the table, a council tax rise will help to deliver vital public services.”
Fellow co-leader Richard Thomson added: “Our responsibility today is greater than ever as we must do whatever we can to preserve our excellent services, but in the context of ever greater demands and a reducing financial settlement.”
The Partnership budget sets aside £314million for education and children’s services, £112million for social care and £32million for roads and transport.
A £3million fund has also been set aside to alleviate the impact of the controversial rise in business rates.
Conservative councillor Jim Gifford, leader of the opposition Alliance Group, put forward an alternative budget without an extra council tax rise on top of the proposals already unveiled by SNP ministers at Holyrood.
Mr Gifford said: “The report has a list of risks for this budget – I think we should add the Scottish Government to that list.
“This year we’re not having a council tax freeze, we’re having a council tax rise imposed on 42% of our residents.
“We will ask the council to do more of the heavy lifting rather than our residents.”
Seconding Mr Gifford’s proposals, Liberal Democrat group leader Karen Clark said it was a “responsible and balanced view of the budget” which did not inflict more pain on taxpayers.
Instead the Alliance proposed slashing an additional £3million from the education budget, including reducing music tuition, the pupil support assistant budget and cutting £500,000 from special education.
The competing budgets sparked a fierce two-hour row in the chamber.
SNP councillor Rob Merson said: “We’ve had a budget proposal from the administration and a party political broadcast from the opposition. Is there an election on the horizon?”
Party colleague Brian Topping, challenging the Alliance proposals, added: “Drab, dull and damaging – you’ve got £7million more cuts to the people of Aberdeenshire you say you represent.
“The Alliance have bitterly attacked the Scottish Government about the council tax freeze. Now’s there’s an opportunity to change it.”
And Independent councillor Dave Stewart added: “Politics rears its head again. We should be here as councillors to make Aberdeenshire better, not get in a bun fight over a few million pounds.”
Too much to ask?
The cost of the 2.5% increase in council tax was compared to “special offer” confectionery and beer during yesterday’s budget debate.
Lower band households will pay between £19 and £28 more each year. For Band D homes – valued between £45,000 and £58,000 – the increase amounts to less than 55p per week.
Fraserburgh councillor Brian Topping – the longest-serving representative in Aberdeenshire – pulled out a Cadbury’s Creme Egg in the chamber to demonstrate how little the change would affect residents.
Joking that he was lucky to find two of the Easter treats in a £1 deal, Mr Topping added: “What we’re talking about is a 50p increase for Band D.”
Green councillor Martin Ford, who struck a deal with the SNP-Labour administration to help pass the budget, similarly likened the change to the cost of a “chocolate bar on special offer”.
And independent councillor Dave Stewart said that the increase was equivalent to “three and a half fluid ounces of beer a week at the pub”.
“Too much to ask?” the Mearns councillor added.
The 2.5% increase on all bands will raise around £3million for Aberdeenshire Council.
Higher bands are facing an additional increase announced by the Scottish Government. Bills for Band H properties – valued over £212,000 – will rise by £583 per year.