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[30 Mar 2013 | No Comments | Martin Rooney ]
Martin RooneyIn April this year, the UK Government is to scrap the national Council Tax benefit as part of the governments welfare reforms. In doing so they passed responsibility to assist people in the payment of Council Tax to the Scottish Government and to local authorities in England and Wales The UK Government also passed funding to the Scottish Government and others to assist with the funding of the new schemes. However, the funding from the UK Government was reduced by 10% as part of their welfare reform savings. In Scotland the Scottish Government and all Local Authorities have agreed a £40m fund to make up the shortfall in 2013/14. The cost of the new system will be shared between the Scottish Government with the split being that the Scottish Government would contribute £23m and Council’s would contribute £17m. In West Dunbartonshire the Council pays out around £11 million per year in Council Tax Benefit and the changes meant that the Council would have had to make up the shortfall. It is expected that West Dunbartonshire Council’s share of the will be around £300,000 with the Scottish Government making a larger contribution. Unfortunately, the Scottish Government has only given a commitment to fund the Council Tax Reduction scheme for one year. Council Leader Martin Rooney said: ‘The partnership approach between COSLA and the Scottish Government was a really positive move and it allows us to manage the change this year, but I am concerned that the Scottish Government is unwilling to provide the same level of support in future years and will instead put additional burdens on councils.’  All residents should now have received their Council Tax Bill for 2013/14, which shows the amount of Council Tax Reduction that they will have. Assuming there was no change in circumstances residents in West Dunbartonshire should see no change to the level of support they receive compared to the previous system. This should be the equivalent to what was previously funded by the Council Tax Benefit. The effect of the changes will be much greater in England as some will simply be passing on the cut to families, meaning some tenants and owners will get less support. But in Wales the Labour led Welsh Assembly has agreed to fully fund Council Tax benefit for all local authorities.

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[30 Mar 2013 | No Comments | Martin Rooney ]

Councillor Martin RooneyAt a meeting of West Dunbartonshire Council on Wednesday 27th March the Council agreed its Scottish Welfare Fund Policy. The Council’s policy is in line with Scottish Government guidance reflecting the original Department of Works and Pensions Guidance. In section 4.4 of the report the amount of Scottish Welfare Funding was set out as £829,587 with £562,482 for Community Care Grants and £267,105 for Crisis Grants. Council Leader Martin Rooney said:  ‘It’s disappointing that the Scottish Government has only committed to two years on supporting the Scottish Welfare Fund discretionary scheme. There is a risk that funding could be cut in future years.’ Under the DWP claimants only received a Crisis Loan, whereas now they will receive a grant so the expectation is that the number of claimants could increase. The Council is anticipating around 7,000 claimants each year. The policy will allow the Council to prioritise Scottish Welfare Fund awards on a fair and consistent basis and our financial management approach will be able to decide on a month by month basis the level of priorities that awards can be approved. The discretionary payments are designed to pay out for an emergency or a disaster in order to avoid serious damage or serious risk to H&S of the applicant or their family. The Community Care Grants also pay out awards in support of independent living. There are lots of instances and examples to illustrate when a payment could be made but there will be a lot of reliance on the professional officers expertise and judgement and the priority level available. Councillor Rooney added: ‘We cannot make policy for every eventuality but the policy has been well thought out with sufficient flexibilities built in. It would be wrong to try to prioritise any particular client group beyond the requirements of the Scottish Government guidance and to try to turn the discretionary payments for emergencies into a routine payments. I know there has been a lot of hard work over many months trying to pull this policy together and ensure that we can deliver it in a consistent and fair manner. I would like to put on record my thanks to the Executive Director and her staff.’

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[24 Mar 2013 | No Comments | Martin Rooney ]

Councillor Martin RooneyWest Dunbartonshire Council is in the process of reviewing its Community Planning Partnership. The review is being driven by a number of factors such as the Scottish Government and COSLA national review of Community Planning; a changing national landscape with the creation of a national police force; a national fire and rescue service; and the new localism and neighbourhood management agenda.  At a local level the review is being driven by the fact that the existing partnership runs out on 31st March, 2013; the changing economic, social and cultural challenges; and the recognition that there is significant scope for better community engagement. The national review has identified a need for greater emphasis on preventative work, shared accountability for delivering outcomes, transforming community engagement, a better understanding of place; and a focus on the totality of spend rather than just the CPP specific budget. The Community Planning Partnership (Fire, Police, NHS, Council and others) collectively spends more than £300m in West Dunbartonshire, yet the CPP structures and processes mean an inordinate amount of time and resources is spent examining how the £3m of specific funding is utilised. In addition most of the specific resources go on staff costs for core services, so there was always limited scope to alter the spend and therefore limited scope to bring about significant change if the focus was on this spend rather than the overall partnership spend of £300m in West Dunbartonshire. Council Leader and chair of the CPP Martin Rooney said: ‘The review of community planning is well overdue. Community planning is a process, not a structure and we want to ensure that it deliver better services for our residents. We need to look at the totality of the partnership spend across West Dunbartonshire and see if there are better ways to target our collective resources towards prevention. It’s important that we also involve local people and neighbourhoods in the development and implementation of services.’

Notes:

  1. The CPP is also required to update its Single Outcome Agreement to take account of Scottish Government policy.
  2. The review of CPP structures will refresh the existing Themed Groups and replace these with groups that will focus on delivery and improvement.  These include:
    1. Regeneration & Economic Growth Delivery and Improvement Group
    2. Children and Families Delivery and Improvement Group
    3. Safe and Strong Delivery and Improvement Group
    4. CHCP/Leisure Trust/SOA priorities Group
    5. The CPP review will also focus on community engagement examining how we collect views, ensure involvement in design and delivery of local services, and build capacity of communities to develop services and deliver services.
    6. The CPP already has a number of effective engagement mechanisms such as (i) the Citizens Panel; (ii) Tenant Participation Groups; the NHS Public Participation Forum; and the Public Reassurance model. The Council also has a Community Participation Committee and has access to a range of groups and structures that can be used for community engagement purposes.
    7. The key dates for the CPP review are outlined below:
  • Feb – Apr 2013 review CPP budget processes
  • Feb – June 2013 review and update the Single Outcome Agreement (SOA)
  • Feb – April 2013 ODS support to community forums ends. The forums to determine their own future but are no longer a specific CPP engagement platform.
  • June 2013 final meeting of the current CPP Board
  • End June 2013 submit refreshed SOA  for (2011-2014) to Scottish Government
  • August/September 2013 establishment and development of new CPP Management Group
  • November 2013 new CPP partnership agreement in place
  • November 2013 new CPP structures in place
  • April 2014 new SOA for 2014 – 2017

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[12 Mar 2013 | No Comments | Martin Rooney ]

phpSFlmXJWest Dunbartonshire Council is set to be one of the first Councils in Scotland to agree a ‘no evictions policy’ for tenants affected by the ‘bedroom tax’. The Council has been looking at a variety of measures to help tenants without putting the housing budget at risk. The council has already committed over £2m towards initiatives that will help to protect the council against the worst aspects of the Welfare reform changes including: (i) Setting aside £950,000 to deal with an expected shortfall in rents from the council’s 240 temporary accommodation units; (ii) Increasing the amount of Discretionary Housing Payments to £813,000, the maximum legal amount of support the council can provide; and (iii) Setting aside an additional £550,000 to deal with expected shortfalls in rental income as a result of the bedroom tax. Speaking about the measures Council Leader Martin Rooney said: ‘We have already done more than most council’s to mitigate against the effects of the welfare reform change using over £1m of council tax taxpayer’s money and over £1m of tenants’ money to provide additional protection for the housing account and vulnerable tenants.’  West Dunbartonshire Council has also conducted an awareness raising campaign with all tenants and has also arranged visits to affected tenants, to offer advice and support. The Labour led Council is also planning to review its Corporate Debt Policy to take account of the Welfare Reform changes. The review is expected to specifically prioritise the payment of rent in order to ensure that council housing budgets are protected. This will ensure that jobs and services and the much needed investment of £85m will be secure. The review will also give a commitment to a ‘no evictions’ policy. Councillor Rooney added: ‘It is vital that our housing services are properly resourced to ensure that we can meet the Scottish Governments housing quality standard. The Council’s housing service directly funds hundreds of jobs including those in the Council’s Direct Labour Organisation. We need to make sure that these services and jobs are protected and that means finding a way to guarantee the housing income.’  As well as practical assistance the Council has also continued with its opposition to the Welfare Reform Act through COSLA. This has been principled opposition to the UK government Welfare Reform Act and COSLA had called on the Scottish Government to amend the Housing (Scotland) Act 2001 to protect tenants. COSLA had also asked the Scottish Government to follow the Welsh example and fully fund the Council Tax Replacement Scheme next year. Councillor Rooney said: ‘Neither the local housing associations nor the Council housing department has the capacity to re-house all affected tenants into smaller dwellings. It is now clear that the UK government has no intention of scrapping its legislation and the Scottish Government appear unwilling to use their devolved powers to amend the housing (Scotland ) Act 2001. The Council therefore is the last line of defence against the Welfare Reforms and tenants are reliant on us taking effective action to protect social housing and to protect individuals’.

A copy of Councillor Rooney’s Motion is below:

 

MOTION – WEST DUNBARTONSHIRE COUNCIL WEDNESDAY 27th MARCH

Scottish Government Failure to Act on the Reductions in Housing Benefit Due to Under Occupancy Rules (Bedroom Tax)

This Council notes that the UK government set out the timetable for the introduction of the ‘Bedroom Tax’ in 2010. Since 2010 the Scottish Government, COSLA, political parties and voluntary organisations such as Citizens Advices Scotland, Shelter and many others have opposed the Welfare Reform changes. However, the Welfare Reform Act still received Royal Assent.

 

In addition, since coming to office in May 2012 the Labour administration has taken both a practical and a political approach to the Welfare Reforms. Our practical approach means that locally we have mitigated against some of the more negative impacts of Welfare Reform by setting aside over £2m of funding support by:

  • Assuming a £950,000 shortfall in rent from our Temporary Accommodation.
  • Maximising the amount of Discretionary Housing Payments to provide a fund of £813,000.
  • Assuming a £550,000 loss of rents to the Housing Revenue Account.

 

In addition we launched a high profile publicity drive which involved housing and benefit trained staff visiting 2,000 council tenants affected by the bedroom tax and the local Housing Associations have carried out a similar campaign of awareness raising over a significant period and provided welfare advice services to their tenants.

 

The Council’s political approach has been fairly straightforward in that through COSLA we have continued with our principled opposition to the UK government Welfare Reform Act. We have also called on the Scottish Government to amend the Housing (Scotland) Act 2001 to protect tenants. This includes the redefinition of bedrooms and amending the law to prevent evictions on the basis of rent arrears built up as a result of the Bedroom Tax. Council notes that the Scottish Parliament already has at its disposal the necessary devolved powers.

 

COSLA had also asked the Scottish Government to follow the Welsh example and fully fund the Council Tax Replacement Scheme next year. Again the Scottish Parliament has the necessary devolved powers at their disposal to do this. Council notes that on 22nd February the COSLA approach received unanimous support from: Labour, SNP, Conservative, Liberal Democratic and Independent Councillors.

 

Neither the local housing associations nor the Council housing department has the capacity to re-house all affected tenants into smaller dwellings. It is now clear that the UK government has no intention of scrapping its legislation and the Scottish Government appear unwilling to use their devolved powers to amend the housing (Scotland ) Act 2001.

 

The Council therefore is the last line of defence against the Welfare Reforms and tenants are reliant on us taking effective action to protect social housing and to protect individuals. The Council currently has a Corporate Debt Policy and a Rent Arrears Policy which ensures that a series of practical steps are taken to assist individuals who have council debts. Those residents who actively work with the Council to address debt issues are protected by the policy.

 

This Council authorises the Chief Executive to revise the Council’s Rent Arrears and Corporate Debt policies to take account of recent and future welfare changes such as cuts to housing benefit, cuts to tax credits, and the roll out of Universal Credit by including an explicit commitment of a ‘No Evictions Policy’ for rent arrears for tenants who actively work with and accept the support of the Council to agree a payment plan.

 

In addition, the updated Corporate Debt Policy is to specifically prioritise rent payments so that rental income is maintained and the integrity of the Housing Revenue Account is preserved. In addition tenancies can be sustained and the Council can continue to invest in its social housing stock.

 

Council acknowledges the potential risks to local housing associations and encourages them to adopt similar policies that help tenants to maintain their tenancies.

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[10 Feb 2013 | No Comments | Martin Rooney ]

Opposition Councillors Fail Credibility Test

At a special Council meeting on Wednesday 6th February, West Dunbartonshire Councillors met to set the Council’s 2013/14 Budget.  The Council had cuts in funding from the Scottish Government but despite this opposition Councillors had promised ‘a no cuts budget’ and an extra £1m investment in sustainable jobs.  However, at the special Council meeting the expected £1m of funding for sustainable jobs did not materialise, instead a one-off £500,000 was made available by opposition Councillors for ‘sustainable jobs’. Council Leader Martin Rooney said: ‘I was a  disappointed to learn that the investment in jobs was half of what was expected and that it was for just one year. It’s difficult to see how these could be sustainable jobs without sustainable funding.’  There was further disappointment however when Councillor Jim Bollan and Councillor George Black presented their ‘no cuts budget’ which actually contained £3,307,549 of cuts. The cuts comprised £1,426,856 of ‘Management Adjustments’ which were supported by Councillor Bollan and Black and a further set of opposition cuts totalling £1,880,693. In an attempt to hide their embarrassment over their massive cuts, the opposition Councillors invented a new budget term of ‘Budget Book Adjustments’. Councillor Rooney added: ‘I was astounded by the paucity and scale of the opposition cuts especially as both Councillor Bollan and Black had publicly proclaimed that there would not be any cuts in their budget.’  Within the opposition cuts of £1,880,693 there were ‘budget book adjustments’ where Councillor Bollan and Black had ‘adjusted’ spend DOWNWARD on Mental Health; staff travel; supplies and services; and so on and they also INCREASED sales fees and charges in schools and outdoor services.  The opposition budget had a few surprises in store for staff and as well as Councillor Bollan and Black supporting £1,426,856 of ‘Management Adjustments’ by deleting posts such as legal and admin employee, Members Secretary,  Personnel office, part time waste services operative. They also agreed £500,000 for a voluntary redundancy trawl which was five times the amount proposed by Labour Councillors. The opposition councillors also called for a management restructure to save £250,000, a reduction in janitors overtime by £10,000 and a cut to staff pensions of £400,000 that had been set aside to cover for the UK governments’ auto-enrolement scheme which encourages staff to join the council’s pension scheme. The opposition councillors also supported a turnover saving of £400,000 which means an increase in the gap before a post is filled and a £250,000 absence management saving. Councillor Bollan and Black also agreed a cut in winter maintenance/ gritting service of £80,000 but unlike the Labour administration, they did not set up a Severe Weather Contingency Fund.  The Opposition budget also proposed a cut of £50,000 in the Mental Health Budget; a Best Value Revue to cut £40,000 in transport costs; and an increase in charges for HEED outdoor services of £17,000.  At the Council meeting on 19th December 2012, Councillor Black had stood up and declared that he was ruling out CS2 Payroll Rationalisation saving of £7,000 and challenged the Labour Administration to rule it out. The Labour Councillors did not respond but this saving was not in the Labour budget However, Councillor Bollan and Black did include the CS2 saving of £7,000 in their budget. Council Leader Martin Rooney said: ‘I was astounded by the lack of thought that went into the opposition councillor’s budget. It’s relatively easy to cut staff pensions and push for more voluntary redundancies but I believe that these cuts would be too fast and too deep. It is important that we don’t make the same mistake as the Tories and let too many staff leave at once. I also believe that we should encourage our staff not in the pension scheme to join. It was really disappointing to see Councillor Bollan and Black cutting £80,000 from our winter gritting service but making absolutely no provision to deal with extreme weather conditions. Also the opposition budget was the only budget cutting £50,000 from Mental Health Services.  As far as I am concerned the measures in the opposition ‘no cuts budget’ means that Councillor Bollan and Black will have lost the last shred of credibility they had with staff and the public.’

The full list of the Opposition Councillors Cuts is set out below:

  • Chief Executive Conference Costs – £1,500
  • Consumer & Trading Standards Staff Travel – £1,000
  • Environmental Health  Supplies & Services – £5,000
  • Revenues Benefits & Exchequer Postage – £20,000
  • Schools Tools & Equipment – £5,000
  • CHCP HQ Telephones – £5,000
  • Mental Health Supplementation – £50,000
  • Transport General Best Value Reduction – £40,000
  • Building Cleaning Tools & Equipment – £6,000
  • Building Cleaning Increase Sales Fees & Charges – £16,000
  • Roads Services Poles and Signs – £4,000
  • Outdoor Service Increase Sales Fees & Charges – £17,000
  • Corporate Assets Capital Scheme Maintenance – £172,000
  • Senior Management Review – £250,000
  • Spending Freeze on non-essential  spend – £324,193
  • Savings Option CS2 Payroll Efficiency – £7,000
  • Savings Option HEED 1 –Janitors Supplies – £10,000
  • Savings Option HEED4 – Winter Maintenance Review – £80,000
  • Savings Option GEN2 – General Trawl – £500,000
  • Auto Enrolment Saving – £400,000
  • School Transport Burden – £137,500

TOTAL OPPOSITION CUTS = £1,880,693

As well as the active cuts made by the Opposition Councillors a further £1,426,856 worth of proposed management cuts were agreed by Councillor Bollan and Councillor Black. The full details of these cuts are below:

  • Reduce Overtime – £10,000
  • Scanning Invoices – £7,600
  • ICT Server Rationalisation – £40,000
  • Licence Management  – £25,530
  • ICT Contract Renewals – £10,000
  • Management & Leadership Development – £21,600
  • Staffing Saving – £37,000
  • Reduction in Training – £1,000
  • Office Equipment Budget – £2,750
  • Reduction in Training – £5,000
  • Legal & Admin Post – £30,272
  • Members Services Post – £21,055
  • Environmental Health Staffing – £7,195
  • Committee Office Hours – £4,174
  • Wed Design Budget – £2,000
  • Education Reduction to Term Time of Pre five Staff – £8,000
  • Office Rationalisation – £43,000
  • HEED Personnel Post – £38,300
  • Savings on Food Purchase – £20,000
  • Reduce Tonnage of Waste Managed – £121,000
  • Delete Part Time Waste Operative £9,000
  • Provision of Floral Displays – £40,000
  • Reduction in Open Space Grass Cutting – £30,000
  • Reduce Fertiliser Application to Sports Pitches – £20,000
  • Better Utilisation of Depot Assets – £15,000
  • Fixed Penalty Notices – £20,000
  • Reduce Subscription Costs – £4,000
  • Ordinance Survey Licence Fee Increase – £8,550
  • Increase in Planning Fees – £5,000
  • Reduce Software Costs – £2,500
  • Reduce Other Admin Costs – £1,180
  • Reduce Payment to Visit Scotland – £18,000
  • Reduce Payment to Town Centre Management – £5,000
  • Reduce Other Supplies and Services – £3,150
  • Reduce Other Admin Costs – £6,000
  • Carbon Reduction – £45,000
  • Reduce Payments to Other Bodies – £7,000
  • Tariff Reduction For Energy in Temporary Accommodation – £30,000
  • Reduce Homeless Repair Costs – £10,000
  • Increased Occupancy in Temporary Accommodation – £10,000
  • Reduction in Furnishing Costs Homeless Units – £20,000
  • Increase Turnover from 2.5% to 3% – £400,000
  • Absence Management – £250,000

TOTAL MANAGEMENT ADJUSTMENTS TAKEN BY OPPOSITION COUNCILLORS = £1,426,856

 

The Opposition Budget also used £2,383,693 of council reserves to balance the books this year which puts an additional burden on the revenue budget in 2014/2015.

The Opposition Budget agreed to spend a one off £500,000 to create ‘sustainable’ jobs; a further £250,000 was earmarked for welfare advice services; and £287,500 was set aside for Discretionary Housing Payments.

The Opposition Budget supported the SNP and Tory Policy of reducing the size of government by agreeing to a freeze on Council Tax.