POLITICAL representatives have given their views after they agreed the Clackmannanshire Council budget for 2019-20.

Events unfolding in the chamber last Wednesday, March 6, saw amendments from Labour shut down, setting the tone of the meeting which saw the opposition party largely voting against the SNP administration, who received support from the Conservatives.

The latter group was able to assert its will when it came to an amendment setting the council tax rise at four per cent, while another amendment made sure that visitor and workplace parking levies will not be introduced in Clackmannanshire until at least 2022-23.

A whole host of decisions taken on the day can be found in today’s Advertiser.

SNP council leader Councillor Ellen Forson said: “From the start we committed to working together, as a minority administration you have no option.

“You have to speak to other parties and try and come up with consensus wherever possible.

“Unfortunately, the Labour party’s amendments were not discussed, there was no discussion about what they were putting forward.”

She went on to say that if approaches had been made, there may have been a way to incorporate them in the budget or come to a compromise – Labour were looking for a 3.5 per cent council tax rise for instance.

The council leader added: “The conversations with the Conservative group were fairly constructive as well, I didn’t know that they were actually going to support the budget until the day.

“Their amendments that they put forward were fairly technical and things that we’d agreed to do anyway so we were happy to do that.

“When it came to the council tax, it was clear that there was a divergence of opinions.”

She added the SNP was happy to compromise on the levy, which the party initially wanted to raise by 4.79 per cent to generate more income and protect vital services.

Labour leader Cllr Dave Clark also spoke out about his amendment.

He told the Advertiser: “Our amendment was designed to be gentle with our population after the ravages of cuts year on year.

“It also had a heart for struggling communities and the poor in our area.

“Discussion a few months ago suggested we might have a two week window after the papers were published until the council budget meeting.

“For their own reasons the SNP reneged on that understanding and left a week - this is not a breach of standing orders.

“We worked particularly hard on our submission, hoping to share it with the Conservatives and SNP on the Friday before the meeting, but officials had some last minute touches and it was not until the Monday I was able to email them.

“This was done in the spirit of the groups in dialogue despite the SNP concluding their budget without consultation.

“Then we saw three amendments besides our own within the 24hour window determined by standing orders.

“However, the Tory amendment was not emailed to us and was only tabled at the meeting itself.

“We are clear that the Labour Group behaved with nothing but integrity.

“We leave the public and their consciences to decide whether the others also behaved with the same integrity.”

Conservative leader Cllr Bill Mason, whose amendment was the decider on the council tax, said: “The Scottish Conservative and Unionist Councillors have been involved throughout the budget discussions and preparations.

“We have been represented at all public meetings and drop-in sessions and spoken with many constituents and concerned parties.

“We have discussed implications with senior council officers and took account of the budget briefings for all elected members.

“We expressed concerns about school closures, reduction in teaching hours, possible closure of the Leasure Bowl, the Citizens Advice Bureau, and other services, and are happy that consensus was reached with the administration on taking these items off the budget table.

“We gave serious thought to the level of council tax increase, and whilst openly acknowledging the serious need to maximise the council’s income, we felt that four per cent increase was fair to all householders in the county whilst still increasing income and are pleased that the administration could accept our amendment and agree the four per cent.

“Our amendment on parking levy tax was included to reinforce the budget statement and to give the strongest message that Clackmannanshire is open for business, welcomes start-ups and expansion of small and medium-sized businesses.”

Another Conservative amendment, from Cllr Martha Benny, agreed that a paper on the council’s dynamic pricing strategy is brought forward to the local authority’s June meeting, something officers will need to compile in time.

Cllr Mason added: “Our amendment on community centre charges is to ensure maximum opportunities to our volunteer trusts to make a real success of their ventures.

“Finally, the financial situation of the council remains serious, and our Conservative Group will work in co-operation across parties in council matters, as I think we have proved, to do the best we can for all of Clackmannanshire.”

Fresh savings of around £4.8m were agreed to deal with the budget gap.

Council leader Forson said: “The biggest one is the move to looking at ways of collaborative working.

“There’s a significant amount of savings identified there and we are at the early stages of that.”

She added: “It may mean working with organisations, like Tayside Contracts, […] to deliver certain council services.

“We are looking at maybe sharing trading standards with Stirling.

“It is really-really early days, and we’ll have to consult on them, but at the end of the they it shouldn’t impact on the delivery of services for local people – they’ll just cost a wee bit less.”

More importantly, she is keen to identify what Clackmannanshire could deliver as part of collaborative working in partnerships, adding: “We want to be the provider in certain areas.”

She concluded: “We have just agreed a budget of £125m to deliver local services, £50m of that is in education and that’s record levels of spending.

“The education budget has increased from £36m in 2011 to just over £50m this year, so I hope that demonstrates the commitment that we place on education and delivering better outcomes for our young people.

“We also agreed a capital programme of just over £22m and that’s focused on improving our school estate, roads and footpath upgrades, but also regeneration.

“So there’s awful lot of good work going on within the budget that seems to get lost within the context of a number of cuts.”

Cllr Forson was also keen to highlight a dedicated funding officer will be in place to maximise income through grants not just for the local authority, but community groups as well.

During the meeting, the Labour and SNP leaders clashed over the level of cuts to local government from Westminster and Holyrood.

Cllr Clark said: “Politics is about smoke and mirrors, but the Labour Group was keen to move beyond oratory and work with truth.

“It was disturbing and Orwellian to watch the pretences of others as they tried to obscure issues.

“For example, the council's chief accountant advised me: ‘Using the base general grant before specific and ring-fenced grants there has been a reduction of 2.5 per cent, £2m from 2018-19’.

“Obviously, nobody wanted to confront that truth other than the Labour Party.

“It disrupted their narrative that they were improving things.

“Consequently, it was a little surreal dealing with their fantasy of reality.”

He went on to say the “alliance” between the Conservative and the SNP groups “is overt and played out on the council chamber”.

Cllr Clark added: “They are bedfellows.

“It is puzzling why the Tories chose a higher level of taxation than Labour - did they not care about the council tax payer?

“Were they behaving with integrity bringing a motion before the council after the 24-hour deadline and is the provost's answer to accepting the Conservative motion which she replied was done for the reason - standing orders suggest she has to have a good reason - that it was ‘because it is the council's budget meeting’ sufficient reason?”

As to what the Labour leader takes away from the budget, he said: “It is positive that the staff have been skilled enough to continue to manage the attrition and achieve a balanced budget, albeit death by a thousand cuts which need to be given the political spin of becoming lean and efficient.

“On the negative side, the opportunity to ease the burden on the council taxpayer has been missed as has the opportunity to bolster failing communities and be a little forgiving to the poor suffering badly in the wake of the ravages of Universal Credit.

“The place will generally look just a little more shabby and people's hope will be sucked out a little more.”

Responding to Cllr Clark’s “bedfellows” comment, the SNP leader said: “That’s ultimate hypocrisy.

“For years Labour were quite happy to accept the votes of the Tories and it’s just a bit of petulance, they are not getting them now.”

As for the late amendment, she explained: “It’s certainly not out of the ordinary for the provost to take an amendment on the day.”