Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Cut and run...with loads of cash

The significant cuts in public expenditure ranging from road sweeping to defence of the realm by politicians who decided we could no longer afford to pay for them are already leaving an unwanted imprint on the Borders landscape.

I'm particularly brassed off by the lack of verge cutting and hedge trimming adjacent to our highways and byways by trunk road contractors and council workmen. Many untended roadsides are an overgrown mess where six-foot high hemlock plants thrive untamed, and sight lines at junctions are marred by overhanging branches and waist high grass. An utter disgrace.

The nation's carriageways themselves require hundreds of millions of pounds worth of attention, thanks to a backlog of repairs and maintenance which lengthens by the day. More than 40 per cent of the vital Borders roads network needs care and attention, but the money simply isn't available and a few bawbees devoted to pot-hole repairs isn't the answer.

Do we really want to see our public services bleed to death then fade away to nothing? The trouble is no-one seems to be standing up for the organisations which are meant to serve taxpayers and deliver the services we require and deserve. At the same time many of our councillors appear to find difficulty in identifying the electorate's priorities, preferring to squander resources on vanity projects rather than concentrating on the basics.

But while budgets are decimated and the quality of services is left to spiral downwards into the 'barely acceptable' category, I've always wondered where the vast sums come from to fund voluntary redundancy packages and early retirement golden goodbyes. After all this is money paid up front to deliver alleged savings sometime later. I'm yet to be convinced.

I don't suppose many people noticed there was a recent meeting of the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) in Selkirk when members received a report from its quaintly titled Director of People & Development detailing the latest statistics on voluntary redundancy and early retirement.

Police Scotland, which came into force (pardon the pun) in April 2013 with the amalgamation of all Scottish constabularies, soon realised it was so short of money that police station public counters had to close and virtually all traffic wardens found themselves surplus to requirements.

But even in the short time span since its birth Police Scotland has spent £21.2 million on exit packages. The report showed the authority's National Voluntary Release Panel had met on 24 occasions to review 890 applications to leave the service. I assume the majority of requests have come from traffic wardens and civilian support staff.

The document suggested about 780 offers had been accepted which works out, on average, at £27,179. But the SPA was assured the generous reduction in the payroll would result in annual savings of £20.2 million.

In the course of Scottish local government's financial year of 2012/13 the bill for 1,996 departures was an eye-watering £89.393 million. No fewer than 369 individuals cut deals in excess of £80,000 and 297 of those settlements exceeded £100,000.

Our own local authority in the Borders parted with £8.506 million for 416 packages in the five financial years to 2012/13, and has allowed for a further £4.7 million to cover the cost of future voluntary redundancies and early retirements up to March 2018.

If the size of these packages could be scaled back by say 20 or even 10 per cent across the public sector then maybe we could afford to get those roadside verges manicured and keep a few more offices open.

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