SAVINGS of up to £60 million could be required at East Lothian Council over the next five years, putting frontline services at risk.

This stark warning was given by Councillor Norman Hampshire, the leader of the local authority, who said that some services could have to be axed.

The local authority sets an annual budget and has warned in recent years about the difficulty in finding savings.

Mr Hampshire, who has been a councillor for more than 25 years, said that the council had been making “significant savings” for “the last 10 years”.

He said: “Now, we are really struggling to find them without a serious impact on frontline services.

“More reductions are going to be asked for.

“If they are, services are going to be impacted seriously.

'Major impact'

“Estimates from officers over the next five years say we are going to be looking at anywhere between a £40 million and £60 million cut from the local budget. That will have a major impact on all services.

“Those are the challenges we are in just now.”

Discussions are already taking place between the leaders of the four political parties on East Lothian Council – Lachlan Bruce (Conservatives), Shona McIntosh (Greens), Lyn Jardine (SNP) and Mr Hampshire (Labour) – in a bid to find a solution. Mr Hampshire, who represents the Dunbar and East Linton ward on the local authority, spoke about the issue at a virtual meeting of Dunbar Community Council on Monday evening.

He said: “We are looking at everything we can do to reduce cuts to services.

“We will not do that by taking a slice off here and there.

'Closure of facilities'

“We will be doing things and it may mean the closure of some facilities.

“We are going to look at every single option we have got but there are some significant savings to be got.”

A council spokesperson confirmed that they were “operating within an extremely challenging and complex financial environment and [the council] is continuing to face a wide range of uncertainties and ongoing demand pressures for services”.

Revenue budgets managed directly by council services total about £285 million.

The spokesperson said: “There are concerns that income is not keeping pace with the rising cost of delivering services.

“The council has made use of reserves to set a balanced budget but the level of reserves will not be available going forward, and it needs to be recognised that the bulk of council finance results from central government funding, with council tax revenue only contributing around 24 per cent of total budget.

“The council’s approved budget for 2022/23-2024/25 incorporates the need to identify recurring annual savings totalling £15.5m over this three-year period, when added to the recurring requirement to deliver £2m from enhanced staffing management amounts to £17.5m.

'Substantial pressures'

“Officers subsequently revisited and updated some key assumptions used in budget projections, based on conclusions drawn from the resource spending review announcement, and other potential factors which may impact on available resources and demands on expenditure.

“This suggested – as reported at June’s council meeting – the council could face a potential funding gap of around £48 million in the next five years.

“A report presented to the council earlier this year highlighted the need for the council to take steps to consider and identify recurring to support and enhance future budget development with a focus on financial sustainability in an extremely challenging environment ahead.

“As noted at this week’s cabinet meeting, a number of substantial pressures are emerging across budgets, with the most significant relating to utility inflation, general inflation, availability of labour and materials, as well as ongoing negotiations over pay.

“There remains a growing range of uncertainties and financial risks facing the council, the scale of which may be difficult to manage within existing revenue constraints during 2022/23 and beyond.

“A number of mitigation measures are being taken, while work is ongoing within services to identify options for reducing costs, and an update on progress will be included in future financial update reports to elected members.”

'The picture is not great'

Councillor Lyn Jardine, who also represents the Dunbar and East Linton ward, is the SNP Group leader on the council.

She said: “Clearly, none of us know exactly what the financial picture is going to look like quite yet.

“We are waiting, firstly, on a decision from Westminster about what their budget will look like and then how that impacts on the Scottish Government and therefore further down the line in terms of where all local authorities are.

“The picture is not great but we do want to make sure that in the interest of the whole community in East Lothian, we do work as best as we possibly can together.

“The way the council are approaching budget setting this year is a large step forward in that way.

“We have already had one meeting and it was very clear there is an awful lot of shared purpose in there and we want to achieve the best we can with what we have got.”

'Protecting the most vulnerable'

Councillor Shona McIntosh, from the Scottish Greens, was pleased that discussions would involve each of the parties on the council.

She said: “This cross-party working group is a new initiative that aims to reach consensus on how to make the difficult decisions arising from the squeeze on local authority budgets.

“I’m pleased that Scottish Greens are part of these discussions for the first time in East Lothian and I hope to bring a fresh perspective on the need for climate action and protections for nature.

“There are plenty of shared values around the table, especially around protecting the most vulnerable in our society.

“I, and colleagues from other parties, will argue that an equalities perspective should be at the heart of all our decisions – ensuring women, children, disabled people, people of colour, or any other minority group, are not disproportionately affected by our funding decisions.”

Councillor Lachlan Bruce, leader of the Conservative Group on East Lothian Council, was approached for comment.