Council leader: No community buildings to close without consultation

Council leader: No community buildings to close without consultation

NO COMMUNITY buildings will be closed without public consultation, the leader of cash-strapped East Lothian Council has stressed.

The local authority sets its budget at a meeting on February 28.

Councillor Norman Hampshire, council leader, has already warned the “significant scale of financial pressures” facing the council is at a “highly critical level”.

East Lothian Council faces an estimated funding gap in excess of £14.4 million in 2023-24, with a deficit of more than £45.5 million projected in the next five years.

At a meeting of Prestonpans Community Council last week, the possible impact of the financial crisis was considered.

DJ Johnston-Smith, community council chairman, asked ward councillors Lachlan Bruce and Colin Yorkston: “What changes should we prepare for?”

It was stressed that nothing was decided, but it was suggested by Mr Yorkston that new “hubs” might be created to house “three or four [council] services” where one had previously been based.

‘We need to go further’

Community councillors then asked about the future of community centres. The ward councillors present were eager to stress that no decisions had been made and discussions were still at a “very early stages”.

Mr Bruce, leader of the Conservative Group on the council, said: “The council is facing incredibly difficult financial challenges.

“I have long argued that the council needs to seriously review the number of buildings it runs.

“That needs to start with office space, in my opinion, and we have had some success in getting Randall House [in Macmerry] shut down, with the staff located moving into existing office space, which will save hundreds of thousands every year for taxpayers.

“But we need to go further and be radical.

“There is no point in council taxpayers paying for buildings that are being used a fraction of the time when that money could be better spent more effectively on frontline services and helping to keep council tax down.

“That needs to go hand in hand with the public to understand what they want from council buildings and services in 2023.”

‘Very difficult financial position’

Councillor Hampshire (Labour) confirmed afterwards that no community facility would be closed without consultation.

He said: “The council is in a very difficult financial position due to this year’s Scottish Government grant settlement we have received. As we have already reported, we have an £18m budget deficit that needs to be reduced.

“The cost of our service delivery has increased due to inflation, energy price increases, growth in our communities, the demand for our council services and also the new services we need to deliver.

“To reduce this deficit, the council is looking at reductions across all services and income generation to protect the services our communities need.

“We are looking at all our council assets to see if we can reduce the cost of operation or the income they can generate.

“If possible, we will reduce the buildings we use and sell or lease out to other organisations.

“We have instructed our officers to look at all buildings to see what savings can be achieved if any.

“We will not close any community building without a consultation and I can confirm that Prestonpans Community Centre will not be closing but we will try to increase the number of services using this building and try to reduce its operating costs.”

‘A political choice’

Councillor Lyn Jardine (SNP), leader of the opposition, hoped councillors could work together to preserve as many facilities as possible.

She said: “Local government has never faced such an austere financial future, with high rates of inflation having a severe impact on all running costs, borrowing, as well as the need to consider wage increases to help our valued staff to cope themselves.

“We must never forget that austerity is a political choice by the Tories in Westminster, and that the Scottish Government are required to balance the budget with extremely limited financial levers.

“There are no firm suggestions at present, but the SNP Group will do everything we can to ensure that community representatives, and users of existing facilities, are given every opportunity to feed into consultations on any proposals.”

A council spokesperson said: “The council is currently considering a range of options to close the budget gap, including a review of service delivery and its property portfolio, but there are no current plans to close community centres.”

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East Lothian Courier
Gregor Millar

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