Council leader talks economy in his latest column
Posted on 16 Sep 2020
In six short months, the world has changed beyond our imagination.
It was just over six months ago that Councillors met to set North Ayrshire Council’s budget for 2020/21. At the time, Coronavirus was on our TV screens, but the stories were from other countries who were seeing it rapidly transmit across their population with devastating impact.
It was a time when we probably still couldn’t envisage our own country being placed under an unprecedented lockdown and I am sure few would have imagined that by the summer we would be wearing masks to do our grocery shopping. But the budget was agreed at that meeting and last week, almost halfway through the financial year, my Cabinet had the opportunity to reflect a bit on what has changed since.
Before the financial year even started, the budget was virtually blown apart. Thrown into lockdown, the parameters of what the Council were dealing with, and the support that our residents required, completely changed.
Almost overnight, North Ayrshire Council mobilised new services to support residents from the food packs that we delivered to the community hubs and key worker childcare.
The income that our budget had been predicated on, including the income that would be generated by KA Leisure to support their own operation, evaporated.
The requirement for PPE to protect frontline grew exponentially, incurring additional costs that could not have been predicted just weeks earlier.
All in all, since that budget was set, and after taking into account additional funding that has been provided by the Scottish Government since, North Ayrshire Council has spent £15million more than budgeted responding to the pandemic.
That is a lot of money, a sum probably hard to comprehend for most families. It has been a significant worry to my administration over the last few months, presenting a severe risk to jobs and the services we rely upon. Before summer recess, my Cabinet tasked council officers with developing a financial recovery plan, with the aim of protecting those jobs and services. And, on Tuesday we approved a recovery plan that will, after the use of one-off reserves, do exactly that.
We will be lobbying the UK and Scottish governments to ensure we receive a financial settlement that helps us drive forward our plans and deliver the services for our communities.
There was another report to Cabinet last Tuesday that was hugely influenced by the budget we set at the beginning on March. I have said in these columns for some months that we face an economic crisis as a result of Coronavirus and as most of you will know we have preparing how we reorganise, and improve, the economy through Community Wealth Building.
Last Tuesday we approved our ‘approach’ to economic recovery and renewal. As you would expect, this will take route through the five pillars of Community Wealth Building, but we are also determined to build back greener too.
Utilising a £8.8million Investment Fund that we created in our budget earlier this year, which was funded through re-financing loans, our approach to economic recovery will invest in a local Green New Deal.
The fund will be used to invest in council owned renewable energy projects, which will provide an ongoing income stream to the council that can be re-invested into our local area, and it will help create new commercial space for local businesses.
We are creating a new £500,000 Green Jobs Fund as well as investing another £500,000 in a tree planting programme, exploring ways to create employment and training opportunities for local young people in a programme of carbon sequestration.
The thorny issue of vacant and derelict land will be tackled, with focus on supporting community-led regeneration, a key ambition of our Community Wealth Building strategy.
A new £660,000 Community Wealth Building business fund will support local businesses impacted by the pandemic but will also help facilitate the development of co-operatives, employee owned business, social enterprises and other forms of generative business ownership.
Lockdown impacted the timetable for our capital investment programme, with construction on projects like the new ASN school in Stevenston halted, as well as our house building programme. Both have now restarted, with lots of exciting new council house developments across the whole of North Ayrshire underway, and we will be looking to accelerate the delivery of the programmes in order to support our economic recovery. All projects will be designed through a Community Wealth Building lens, ensuring that the projects build and retain local wealth.
This approach has been endorsed by our Community Wealth Building expert panel who believe it is one of the most ambitious, and progressive, recovery plans anywhere in the UK.
Things have undoubtedly changed in the last six months and there is no doubt that we live in much more challenging times. But that doesn’t mean we should lower our aspirations for our area, it means we should rise to the challenge and raise the bar on our ambitions to build back better.