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Senior Moray Council official stresses Covid-19 will not be used to shut facilities ‘by stealth’

Moray Council's Elgin headquarters.
Moray Council's Elgin headquarters.

One of Moray Council’s most senior officials has stressed facilities will not be closed “by stealth” to save cash to pay for mounting coronavirus bills.

Warnings have been issued that some of the authority’s services may have to be redesigned due to costs associated with the pandemic.

And the assurance came as the estimate of the council’s annual coronavirus bill rose from £5.5 million just two months ago to £7.4 million today.

Yesterday chief financial officer Lorraine Paisey described the figure a “moving feast” while staff move from a “response” to a “recovery” focus.

Proposals to “redesign services” were put forward as the most likely way to generate savings amid concerns about finances in future years.

Depute chief executive Rhona Gunn explained the move would likely lead to some facilities being revamped, but stressed they would not be withdrawn.

She said: “This is not in any way an overture to close facilities by stealth.

“It’s simply a recognition that lessons must be learned from the changes Covid-19 has brought into play.

“An immediate example is pool cars as they will be used differently if we have more staff working from home.

“Another example might be whether we retain the booking system we have for the household recycling centres.”

Extra costs responding to Covid-19 have ranged from additional cleaning, changes to school meals, additional staffing to respond to community needs and delays to construction projects.

Before the pandemic, there were already estimates that Moray Council’s predicted budget gap next year would be £6.9 million.

The extra costs from responding to the health crisis this year have led to fears reserve funds will be exhausted to help balance the books in 2021.

Council leader Graham Leadbitter has stressed efforts will be made to get the authority’s income streams closer to normal in the coming months.

Sports centres remaining closed and the suspension of parking fees in Elgin until at least next month have added to the financial woes.

Conservative group leader Tim Eagle said: “I have no issue with redesigning services but it makes me nervous when it’s as vague as that.

“Covid-19 shouldn’t be used to shut facilities because we can or because they have not been open during the pandemic.”

Mr Leadbitter explained discussions continued with both the Scottish and UK governments about funding to cover the budget gap through Cosla, which represents all Scottish councils.

He said: “The governments are working together with representations from Cosla. It has the potential to be reasonably significant but is still a bit of an unknown quantity.

“They are also looking at the loss of income in relation to arm’s length organisations, which would potentially support Moray Leisure.”

Meanwhile, discussions remain ongoing about attempts to restore hot meals to school canteens.

Only cold lunches have been served since the summer holidays due to social distancing rules in kitchens and concerns about the reliability of the supply chain.

Mrs Paisey added that discussions with Health and Social Care Moray’s board about its own financial position have been positive.

Moray Council would be liable to share any overspend from the organisation with NHS Grampian.

She added: “Obviously their focus for the last five months has been the pandemic. It would be reasonable to expect some slippage in their savings programme.”

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