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Political ‘ding-dong’ over £3.3m hole in Moray Council’s early years and childcare budget

Call for divine intervention at first Moray Council meeting of the new term.
Call for divine intervention at first Moray Council meeting of the new term.

Discussions on a £3.3 million black hole in Moray Council’s early years and childcare budget descended into the “same old political ding-dong”, according to one councillor.

The shortfall has been caused by higher than predicted demand for free nursery places.

Three and four-year-olds, as well as eligible two-year olds, are entitled to 1,140 hours a week.

This has resulted in the need for more staff and extra lunches.

Along with the cost of additional support needs and higher hourly payments for external childcare providers, the total adds up to £1.9 million.

In addition, changes to the Scottish Government funding formula for its flagship policy has seen a £1.4 million drop in the grant for Moray.

Moray Council’s budget needs £20m cut

The shortfall is likely to impact the council’s overall budget for the next financial year, due to be set in February.

Moray Council has to cut around £20 million in spending over the next three years.

Members of the education, children’s and leisure services committee on Wednesday agreed for internal auditors to look into the detailed reasons behind the shortfall and bring a report back to the next meeting.

Conservative group leader Tim Eagle criticised council leader Graham Leadbitter for not working hard enough to lobby the Scottish Government for more money to fund extra childcare.

But that was overshadowed by a spat between the leaders of the SNP and Tory groups.

Conservative group leader and councillor for Buckie, Tim Eagle, criticised council leader Graham Leadbitter for a lack of action over lobbying the government for more funding by only sending a letter to lobby for more government cash.

He said: “I don’t think councillor Leadbitter is doing nearly enough, he should be shouting from the rooftops about this. We’re funding Scottish Government policy.”

However, Mr Leadbitter criticised Mr Eagle’s comment on his perceived lack of work ethic and honesty, calling it “offensive”.

He said: “I’ve stated previously I have raised this frequently in the SNP and through the mechanisms of Cosla leaders, and I have had conversations with ministers of the government.

“I’m not going to take any lessons from councillor Eagle.”

Moray Council leader Graham Leadbitter
Moray Council leader Graham Leadbitter called Conservative leader Tom Eagle’s comments “offensive”.

Independent councillor Derek Ross then said the comments made by the Conservative leader were no more offensive than those made by Mr Leadbitter calling on three Tory councillors to resign because they live out with Moray.

Chairperson of the meeting Sonya Warren called for councillors to stop making rude comments and return to discussing the report in front of them.

Independent councillor for Forres George Alexander said: “It’s a pity discussions on this has degenerated into the same old political ding-dong.”

“This is really a good news story spoiled by an overspend. People in Moray have done what the Scottish Government wanted in taking up this extra childcare with enthusiasm.

“It looks to me as if we largely underestimated the extent of government funding needed.”

‘Same old political ding-dong’

Mr Alexander did warn the council leader not to come looking to him for help finding savings from other services, adding the people of Moray could not be asked to pay the deficit.

Mr Leadbitter said it was “frustrating” that councillors had not been made aware of the shortfall sooner, especially with the budget meeting a few weeks away.

Cosla and local authority leaders across the country have been pressing for the funding formula to be reconsidered.

The report before members laid out some options that could be considered to ease the budget pressures include continuing to lobby the Scottish Government, freezing the hourly rate paid for outside childcare providers, bringing all early years provision in-house or even closing some council-run nurseries.

However, none of them will cover the shortfall in its entirety, could lay the council open to legal challenge through breach of contract, cause overcrowding at some nurseries or leave the local authority in a position of not being able to meet its statutory obligations.

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