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Beware further cuts, Moray Council leader warns

Allan Wright
Allan Wright

Residents in Moray are being warned to brace themselves for further budget cuts following this week’s surprise decision to block a series of school closures.

The alarm has been raised by outgoing council leader Allan Wright, who announced he was quitting the top job on Monday night after fellow councillors voted to keep Milne’s High in Fochabers open, and to impose a moratorium protecting other schools across the region for the next five years.

Last night Mr Wright – one of eight members of the education committee who voted in support of the rejected package – said the money which would have been saved from the proposed closures would now have to be found through cuts in services elsewhere.

The recommendations had been put forward by a team of independent consultants at Caledonian Economics who were invited to review Moray’s schools estate after it emerged £70million would be needed to bring existing buildings up to scratch.

Mr Wright, who has steered the council through the last few years of often controversial financial belt-tightening, said tough decisions would now have to be made – and other budgets were likely to be hit.

“We will have to find the money to do the repairs and call on it from other resources,” he said.

“We have small rural schools like Logie Primary, where the best estimate is that it will cost more than £1.5million bring it up to condition.

“The money will have to be found at the expense of other expenditure. We have a finite amount of money to accommodate across all the services and repairs and maintenance will still need to be carried out.

“Keeping the schools open denies us that opportunity to make savings to pay for expenditure. This will be an issue that we will have to look at in the 2015/2016 budget.”

Pearl Paul, leader of the SNP group whose members secured the 16-eight vote to overturn the consultants’ recommendations, admitted members would have to be “vigilant” about finding savings elsewhere.

But she denied the proposed closures would have boosted the local authority’s financial fortunes.

“The information we got from the education officers on the money side gave no indication that closing schools would save money,” she said.

“We will have to be vigilant and look at other savings, but it was not a case of close schools saving money because that wasn’t what was looked at.”

Mr Wright’s warning follows a string of cuts to council services which have caused anger and concern in communities across Moray.

Earlier this year, it was revealed that the controversial squeeze on spending had slashed the budget deficit by £24million.

The council axed classroom assistant posts, closed libraries and slashed spending on parks.

It also withdrew funding from the arts – prompting Moray MSP and Scottish Government minister Richard Lochhead to claim the measure had made the region a “laughing stock”.

Two years ago, the council was given until the end of the 2016-17 financial year to balance its books.

At the time it was running a deficit of £30million on its £266million budget.

By June this year, the gap had been reduced to just £6million, with £14million of the total coming from cuts in services and staff numbers.

Earlier this year, the full council approved £2.1million of fresh cuts, including reductions in roads maintenance and schools budgets.

Almost half the sum – £977,000 – involved reduced spending on roads maintenance over the next five years.

Teachers were also being asked to find savings of £175,000 – possibly through staffing reductions.

A new hardline stance on rubbish collections provoked fury among residents at the beginning of the year.

Binmen were told not to return to empty uncollected buckets – even if the householder was not to blame for them being missed in the first place.

The cost-cutting measure was put forward in an attempt to save the council up to £20,000 a year.

Last November the authority performed a u-turn to keep open three libraries at Dufftown, Cullen and Burghead, which had been facing closure.

However, four others – Rothes, Findochty, Hopeman and Portknockie – could not be saved.

A £500,000 package of cuts to park services was also agreed last September.

And the popular cafe at Elgin library was closed earlier this year in an effort to save money.