Just three Aberdeen councillors yesterday signed off on millions of pounds worth of budget cuts in what opponents have described as a “dark day for democracy”.
Outraged opposition councillors on the urgent business committee had called for decisions on the emergency budget, prompted by the pandemic, to be taken by every elected representative.
But administration leaders backed officers’ recommended £9.6 million of cuts in a three to two vote – fearing the suggested fortnight’s delay for a full council meeting would only cost the city more.
Despite the local authority’s finance chiefs juggling millions to balance the books, councillors were still tasked with plugging the near £10m deficit in the budget they had agreed only four months prior.
Significant savings have been made by bringing forward a planned overhaul of additional support needs education and not filling vacant posts before next April – including one of four high profile director jobs.
Councillors also increased fees for road closures, works and construction charges – and agreed not to issue refunds for services affected by the pandemic response, such as garden waste collection.
Overall, it is estimated the coronavirus outbreak has cost Aberdeen £25.8m but reallocating money set aside for the expansion of nursery and early learning (ELC) provision more than halved that shortfall.
A further £6.6m of government funding for the ELC roll-out, now on hold, was put aside to meet any future financial impact of the pandemic, while the council will begin chasing up its debts from outstanding charges and fines from today.
Co-leader of the Conservative, Aberdeen Labour and the independent administration, Douglas Lumsden told The P&J: “We had to make decisions today, as every day there is delay the finances would get worse.
“For me, it would be irresponsible to push back the decision any longer.
“The SNP and Liberal Democrat group leaders voted through the governance arrangements in March, so they were either asleep or they didn’t know what they were voting for.”
Group leaders have been meeting since June to take all decisions that would normally go to committee or full council.
Liberal Democrat group leader Ian Yuill, who suggested the fortnight’s pause, said: “The council’s finances have been hard hit by the pandemic – it is between a rock and a hard place.
“No-one would argue that substantial changes don’t need to be made to the council budget, though changes should have been made by all councillors.
“Such an important decision being made by a small group is not in the best interests of democracy, openness or the people of Aberdeen.”
His calls for greater scrutiny were backed by SNP group leader Alex Nicoll, who branded it “a very dark day for democracy in our city”.
“It is totally unacceptable that all councillors were denied a say on the budget that affects their constituents,” he added.
“During usual budget debates, most members will speak and make valuable contributions to the discussion which might result in amendments.”