A WAR of words and finger pointing threatened to derail Highland Council budget discussions this week as opposition councillors called for more time to put forward alternative proposals.
The SNP group said that the week they had been given to consider the administration’s proposals was not enough time – while there was also not enough up-to-date information.
On that basis they called for budget discussions to be delayed for a further month.
This was branded “irresponsible” by council leader Margaret Davidson, however, and despite heated discussion including many independent members declaring themselves opposed to specific proposals before ultimately voting them through the budget was passed with all of the measures trailed by the administration ahead of the meeting.
Below is a summary of the main areas of contention, including comment on them made by councillors at the meeting.
For more on the budget see next week's Ross-shire Journal– and let us know what you think by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
1. Childcare: £200,000 to be saved by cutting grants given to childcare providers.
Councillor Graham Mackenzie said: “At a time when early intervention is seen as crucial in helping to reduce poverty and we attempt to close the attainment gap we are making these cuts.
“The impact assessment highlights the possibility of third sector organisations having to withdraw services and again it is targeting the most vulnerable.”
2. Play parks: All play areas to be “reviewed” with a view to possible closures and two maintenance staff posts to be scrapped, to save £212,000.
SNP group deputy leader Councillor Richard Laird: “I have a problem with the principle of the council taking play equipment away from communities.
“We have quite a lot of housing estates that the parks are falling to pieces. If we say we are going to remove that, [rather than replace] swathes of communities are not going to have parks.
Councillor Ken Gowans said: “This cut is quite swingeing, it’s over 50 per cent. Aren’t we putting the cart before the horse deciding this today? There is no definitive answer to questions about if communities can or will take this over. There is much more work to be done.”
3. Public toilets: A review of all public toilets to be carried out, including the introduction of a new 50p usage charge as well as closures, aiming to save £301,000.
Councillor Kirsteen Currie said: “In this chamber we have an agreement for localism and community empowerment. Where is that here? It will close to wipe out provision on the North Coast 500, particularly in remote and rural areas.
“We need to have meaningful consultation with communities and find out what they want.”
4. Parking: Charges in currently free car parks and increase charges in currently paid-for facilities to a minimum £1 for the first hour, to save £1.4 million.
Councillor Liz MacDonald said: “This is a disastrous suggestion and impacts rural communities. People in Nairn are very worried. Car park charges could be breaking point for many local businesses and the economic impact should have been considered before this found its way into the budget. “
Councillor Raymond Bremner said: The car parks in my ward are really poor and the public won’t willingly accept charges for car parks that are so poor. Any consideration for charges needs to be relative to communities and the benefits they would receive.”
Councillor Laurie Fraser said: “I have confidence in the fact that there will be consultation but as long as you understand if you come to Nairn the answer will be no.”
Budget leader Alister Mackinnon said: “If you have a car parking strategy in your town or village it can be a benefit. No trafficmanagement allows people to park all over and it’s dangerous. A car parking regime allows management to keep the area safer for drivers and pedestrians.”
5. Ward discretionary budgets/community council grants: Grants are to be halved to save £431,000
Councillor Ron MacWilliam said: “These are cuts but they are not savings. A number of community councils are struggling and others are in abeyance. If communities are to take on some of the services the council is cutting elsewhere [parks and toilets] then they need to be encouraged to do so.
“As well as giving their time, community councillors may also have to pay for the privilege as these grants may not even cover administration costs. We need to help communities, not hammer them.”
Councillor Ken Gowans said: “Do we really want community councils to become insolvent? They are an invaluable source of information and a link between councillors and their communities. Quite frankly this is nothing more than an affront to local democracy.”
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