A bitter row has broken out between Moray Council’s administration and opposition councillors over the budget-cutting process.
The council’s SNP administration has accused the Tory opposition group of walking away from budget discussions ‘while trying to unpick savings with no alternative means of balancing budgets being proposed.’
The Tories have countered by accusing the administration of using group leaders’ meetings to create “two classes of councillors, with the majority being excluded from vital discussions”.
They said the administration was using them “not just to discuss issues but to make policy decisions to then be rubber-stamped”.
Things began to boil over at a full council meeting on Wednesday during which the Conservatives tried unsuccessfully to reverse the council’s proposed grass-cutting reductions at a cost of £45,000.
The row prompted council leader Graham Leadbitter to condemn the Tories for walking away from earlier budget talks.
He said: “The Tories shamelessly tried to unpick a budget decision worth tens of thousands of pounds with no hint of where that money may come from.
“This is just a few weeks after they stated they were not prepared to discuss budget items with other group leaders.
“These discussions are not easy or straightforward but we have SNP, Independent and Labour councillors prepared to stick at those discussions to try and find a way through a complex financial issues and reach agreement where we can.”
Conservative group leader Tim Eagle maintained his objections.
He said: “The meetings are behind closed doors and take away from the work of the committees which are the appropriate forum for open frank debate, meetings which are open to the public to attend and on webcast.”
He said his group did not run away from the council last year.
“Our group made the difficult decision that we could not support the advertising and recruitment of two very high-level posts within the council at a time where severe cuts were being tabled.
“Yet within weeks of our leaving the administration group the SNP brought in external consultants to deliver at a cost, the works we had sought to do since being elected to the chamber in 2017.”
Tory Highland MSP Jamie Halcro Johnston said he supported the opposition councillors for standing up against cuts in Moray.
He said: If Councillor Leadbitter and his SNP councillors choose to go down the route of passing on the SNP government cuts without a squeak of protest, local residents will not forgive them for years of reducing public services which will follow.”
Mr Leadbitter said: “We are still prepared to work with the Tories wherever possible and I hope they may reconsider their decision to walk away from budget talks.”