A CHARGE for garden waste collections and the scrapping of a discount taxi scheme for disabled people are among options put forward by East Lothian Council ahead of its budget meeting on February 12.

The cash-strapped council has put proposals from its officers out for public consultation for a second year running.

And among what the local authority describes as the “hard choices” in its published “budget saving options” are:

  • Charging for free garden waste collections or reducing the frequency of these ‘brown bin’ collections from fortnightly to once a month;
  • Reintroducing charges for bulky uplifts, the free collection service for unwanted, large household items such as mattresses and large kitchen appliances;
  • Getting rid of its taxi card scheme, which gives people with disabilities who are unable to access public buses a discounted taxi service.

The council has estimated it could raise £346,000 a year through what opponents have described as a ‘garden tax’, and £90,000 by charging for special uplifts, which were carried out free of charge 8,760 times over the last year.

It says scrapping the taxicard scheme, used by 368 people who receive a council payment of up to £3 towards every trip, would save up to £35,000 a year.

However, Carers of East Lothian (CoEL) have said they are “dismayed” that taxi card subsidies are in the firing line.

Andrew Tweedy, CoEL director, said that losing the scheme would leave disabled people housebound.

He said: “The savings to the council would be pretty small but the impact on the quality of life of those people who depend on this scheme would be huge and cannot be justified.”

Councillor Willie Innes (Lab), council leader, said that the local authority needed to find savings of £7.5 million over the next two years.

Six options have been listed for people to give their views on via the council’s online consultation hub.

READ MORE: Six options the council is considering to save money

No annual fee has yet been suggested for a possible garden waste charge but the scheme is already in place in the Capital, where City of Edinburgh Council introduced a £25 annual fee for garden waste collections over the summer, with the service starting in October alongside a new four-day bin rota system.

That scheme is already under fire after 8,000 complaints were received in the first few weeks over bins which had not been collected; there have been calls for those who signed up for garden collections to receive a refund.

In Midlothian, where there are plans to introduce a £35 annual charge from March, the council is expected to recruit a full-time delivery driver whose sole job is to replace and repair brown bins.

Midlothian Council has also suggested residents ‘share’ bins to cut costs and warned it is likely 10 per cent of garden waste will be dumped in household waste bins as people try to avoid paying.

The number of households in East Lothian is 46,755 and other garden waste charging schemes have reported about 45 to 50 per cent of homes sign up to them.

A move to reduce garden waste collections to monthly could also save the council an estimated £110,000.

East Lothian Council charged for special uplifts during its SNP/Lib Dem administration years of 2007 to 2012. The fees were scrapped in 2013 under the Labour/Conservative administration when the council started consulting on reducing household waste ‘green bin’ collections from weekly to fortnightly, which later went ahead.

Now the current Labour administration is considering whether to reintroduce the charges. Council leader Mr Innes said: “The reality is that the council continues to face some very tough choices.

“The consultation presents some possible options from council officers which might help us to address the challenges posed by reductions in the amount of funding available to us, while at the same time focusing on our priorities and protecting the most vulnerable in our communities.

No decisions made

“It is important to stress that no decisions have been made and work is continuing to identify savings. However, the options highlight the kind of challenges and tough choices faced by councillors across Scotland. It’s absolutely vital that we hear from the residents we serve at this time.”

The six options put before residents in a survey on the council’s consultation hub are: rationalise and review council assets; review the garden waste collection service; grant support to local business; commercialisation of outdoor learning; removal of taxi card scheme; and charge for bulky item uplifts (more details in story below).

The consultation also asks people to rate the services which are most important to them, from leisure centres to homelessness, as well as asking for their views on increasing council tax by up to 10 per cent if allowed by the Scottish Government.

Last year, the council set out 15 options for public consultation ahead of its budget. It later introduced new and increased adult services charges which included charging up to £5 a day to use council-run day centres for adults with learning disabilities, as well as doubling the weekly cost of a community alarm from £2 to £4.

Mr Tweedy said that, while CoEL recognised that the council was in a difficult position, the charity was “dismayed that the taxi card scheme has been singled out as a possible area for cuts”.

He told the Courier: “This scheme is only available to people with a permanent physical disability who do not have their own transport people and who also cannot accesses public transport.

“It provides a small but vital discount on the costs of taxis and the Health and Social Care Partnership’s own advice says that without the scheme such people would be effectively housebound.”

Councillor Jane Henderson (Conservative), leader of the opposition, said it was important that the views of residents were heard and urged as many people as possible to take part in the consultation, which is open until Christmas Eve, December 24.

She said: “We can take on board the views and priorities only if they are voiced. This is one way to try to reach out and I hope as many people try to complete the few simple questions that are set out. The more who participate, the more meaningful the statistics will be and more helpful in working towards constructing the 2019/2020 budget.”

However Councillor Stuart Currie, SNP Group leader, criticised the information provided as “worst case scenario”.

He said: “The budget consultation is an opportunity for our communities and residents to have their say. Unfortunately, the documents take the worst case scenario and give the impression that they are factual. The documents sadly fail to highlight the actions that this administration have failed to take which could have not only saved valuable money but would have helped fund vital frontline services.

“In the weeks ahead, the SNP councillors will engage with other groups to put in place a budget that delivers for East Lothian.”

Iain Gray (Lab), East Lothian MSP, said the consultation aimed to give people the “fullest picture” on decisions that could be taken.

He said: “This is understandable in light of the huge cuts in its funding from the Scottish Government, totalling £25m over the last five years, with further savings of £12.5m to be made over the next three. However, I’m sure that the council will do everything it can to protect essential services and limit any new cuts or charges as far as possible.”

To take part in the consultation, go to: eastlothianconsultations.co.uk and click on ‘East Lothian Council Public Budget Consultation 2019-20’.