CALLS for East Lothian Council to come down harder on housing developers and stop "passing the buck" were made at a meeting this week, as it was revealed that the local authority faced an £8 million budget gap this year.

Ellie Dunnett, the council’s head of finance, told elected members that they were facing an unbudgeted overspend of £8.2 million after using reserves, which was £2 million less than predicted at the last report.

But she said: “Although it may seem positive that we are reporting less, the level of overspend remains unacceptably high and, if this materialises, then a reduction in our reserves levels will severely compromise the financial sustainability of the council.”

Councillor Norman Hampshire, council leader, told the meeting that he and fellow councillors had met with First Minister Humza Yousaf and Deputy First Minister Shona Robison when they visited East Lothian on Monday, where the case for funding to match the county’s growth was made to them.

Population growth

He said: “The pressure our staff are facing is down to growth and demand for council services due to the growth in population here in East Lothian.”

Mr Hampshire pointed out that East Linton’s new train station was opening this week but a bid to access Government funds for a new primary school to replace the 140-year-old one in the village had been rejected.

He said: “[The station] will make the desire for people to buy a house in East Linton increase substantially and, unless we can meet that demand, the price of properties will be so expensive people who live in the village will not be able to afford to stay there.

“We raised this with the First Minister at our meeting, the need for a process so if we are going to make an investment like a new station in a village like East Linton, there needs to be recognition of that growth.

“We haven’t the resources to replace that school unless the Government works with us. We need to get the partnership between local government and national government working so, when investment is made, we maximise that and this council can continue to manage its budget in the best way possible.”

Mr Hampshire added that council tax revenue only made up 25 per cent of the council’s income, with the majority of it coming from Scottish Government grants.

'Free to walk away'

However, his comments came under fire from SNP councillor Lee-Anne Menzies, who said that, while the council was building more homes to meet Government requirements, it had not done enough to control the size of them, pointing to the higher-than-average proportion of homes in the top council tax bands in the county.

She said: “Growth is a large concern and will continue to be a concern for East Lothian but it’s not new and not restricted to our county.

“We are set levels of new homes that we must meet but we are not told they have to be four, five or six bedroom detached houses. We are not told they must be scattered around the county.

“We have had to extend schools because we have allowed planning permissions for extra homes in areas which could not meet demand already and had no services in place.

“We allowed these homes to be large, detached and have huge amounts of bedrooms. It would do us well to remember we can set a higher threshold for social housing and, if developers don’t agree, they are free to walk away.

“It is not our role to be in profit maximisation for huge conglomerate developers. We have at present 35 per cent of our homes in the council tax bands of E to H, compared to the Scottish average of 25 per cent.

“This administration has let this happen by not saying no to developers.”

'Passing the buck'

Councillor Shamin Akhtar, deputy council leader, said: “The independent SPICE report says that East Lothian is one of the worst-funded local authorities in Scotland, so why if we are one of the fastest-growing economies is everyone else getting more money than we are?

“On the levels of housebuilding there were a number of planning applications, some in my ward for Pencaitland and Haddington, where you did have those big houses. Those applications were rejected by the council’s planning committee and the developers went to the Scottish Government and it has overturned those decisions.”

However, Councillor George McGuire, leader of the Conservative Group on the council, agreed with SNP colleagues, telling the meeting that "passing the buck" was not the answer.

He said: “We all agree there are very challenging issues ongoing and ahead of us, but I do agree a blame culture has come in and passing the buck is not the answer to solving the problems.

“We need to be more innovative and proactive in what we are doing as a council.

"One of the big comments is about demanding more from developers.

“There is development going on across the county, yet developers are tramping all over the council. They are demanding more from us rather than us from them.

“The need to work constructively together is the way forward rather than passing the buck.”