A DRAMATIC cull of councillors could save the local authority millions of pounds without any adverse impact, a Ross-shire veteran has claimed.
Black Isle councillor Billy Barclay says many members of the public can’t understand why Highland Council needs 80 representatives all paid a minimum £16,234 each.
He reckons that across the region, up to half that number could be axed, saving the local authority a small fortune every year.
The Independent councillor has also called for a return to a first-past-the-post voting system, claiming the single transferable vote (STV) set-up confused voters and increased apathy.
He said: “If you take a five-year council stint and multiply that by 80 councillors, it adds up to millions. I’m convinced we are overstaffed and I know a lot of people feel the same way. A good ward manager can get through an incredible amount of work — that’s the key.”
He said the STV system — whereby successful councillors must achieve a quota to be elected, their surplus votes then being shared out amongst other candidates — produced a skewed result.
Many Independents who find themselves opposing a coalition made up of the SNP, LibDems and Labour councillors, have claimed the wishes of the electorate are not represented by the ruling administration.
However, his Black Isle colleague David Alston, a LibDem who is also depute leader of the council, yesterday hit back, saying that while he agreed “there are both too many councils in Scotland and too many councillors”, Cllr Barclay had missed an earlier opportunity to press for change.
Cllr Alston, who believes the Highlands could be represented by 50 councillors, said the power to change the set-up lies with the Scottish Government, though “it is important to campaign at local level for change”.
He added: “Although I welcome Councillor Barclay’s late conversion to this cause, I am critical of his lack of support when it could have made a difference.
“A number of us brought a motion to council in December 2010, well ahead of the election, in a real attempt to get things changed. We wanted the council to call for a reduction in the number of councillors and so put pressure on the Scottish Government to amend the legislation. Our move was at the right time and could have had some impact.
“Unfortunately we were defeated and although Cllr Barclay was at the meeting, I’m afraid he did not give his support. In fact, he did not vote at all.
“Being an effective councillor and representing constituents means using the vote in council which the electorate has given us and when it comes to important issues like this, sitting on your hands is the wrong option.
“The time to support a campaign to reduce the number of councillors was before, not after, the election.”
Contacted for comment, SNP leader Drew Hendry, who is based in Tore but represents the Aird and Loch Ness ward, said it was a complex issue. He said some of the larger geographical wards clearly benefited from having more councillors and noted the old system often saw sitting members returned unopposed, which was “not good for democracy”.
Councillor Michael Foxley, a LibDem who was previously the convener and also the longest-serving member of Highland Council before standing down ahead of the last election, confirmed attempts had previously been made to cut down the number of representatives.
He noted the number of councillors in multi-member wards was set by statute and change would require parliamentary approval.
He said over the piece he preferred the single member ward where “the buck stops with one councillor”.
He stated a belief that the rainbow coaltion now ruling Highland Council was “formidable” with great political and personal strengths.
And he dismissed suggestions party-affiliated councillors were beholden to central commands.
“In my time as a LibDem councillor, I can honestly say nobody ever phoned me from Edinburgh or London to tell me what to do. I can’t speak for the other parties, but if anyone had done that to me they’d have got a two word response, the second of which would have been ‘off’.”
Do you think Highland should be run by fewer councillors? Have your say in the Big Vote here