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Council's £5m winter maintenance budget runs out early

By Andrew Dixon

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ROADS and pavements will continue to be gritted despite Highland Council overspending its winter budget by £500,000, a leading councillor has pledged.

Highlanders have been plagued by ice and snow in recent weeks and gritters have battled to keep up.

The local authority has come under fire for not doing enough following countless slips and falls and one elderly man in Inverness died after falling on ice before Christmas.

But it has now come to light that the council has already emptied its £4.98 million fund for winter maintenance and road clearing, which was due to last until April, and spent an extra £500,000.

This has been blamed on the constantly changing weather. Environment, development and infrastructure (EDI) committee chairman Allan Henderson said freshly spread grit was washed away every time it rained or climbing temperatures caused snow and ice to thaw.

He admitted the lack of money was "worrying" but said gritting would continue.

Projections of how much will be spent by the end of the financial year were not available but a Highland Council spokeswoman said a report would be given to the next EDI committee on February 1.

Meanwhile, crisis talks between the council and trade unions are under way in a fight to save jobs amid a £26 million budget black hole.

The local authority’s financial bosses have spent a month crunching numbers since the proposed Scottish Government settlement was revealed in December and have now announced a shortfall of £25.8 million for next year.

Senior councillors have come up with a yet-to-be-revealed list of cuts and ways to claw back cash, including a three per cent council tax rise, but leader Margaret Davidson has warned that job losses were likely.

"Although every effort is being made to achieve a balanced budget without impact on staff numbers, unfortunately this will not be achievable across the whole organisation," she said.

"I appreciate this is a worrying time for everyone, however, we are committed to doing all that we can to avoid compulsory redundancies wherever possible.

"The council has a very good track record of minimising compulsory redundancies which has been achieved by working in partnership with trade unions to optimise the use of vacancies and turnover to achieve successful redeployment outcomes."

The council has blamed the funding gap on a £9.4 million cut from the Scottish Government, £8.3 million for the rising costs of providing services and £8.1 million on pay, price and contract inflation.

Even after coming up with money-saving ideas, a gap of just under £5 million remains, leaving the council with no option but to cut services and charge more for what is left.

Budget leader Alister Mackinnon said: "£25.8 million is a huge cut to our budget and comes after we have already managed a cut of £20 million to our budget in efficiencies over the past year.

"We are also unable to increase council tax beyond three per cent without Scottish Government penalties.

"This leaves us very few places to turn to find more savings of this magnitude. There will be no option but to cut services and to charge more for what we provide."

Cuts will not be agreed until the council’s budget meeting on February 15 when the final Scottish Government settlement will be known.

Cuts from Holyrood may not be as severe as initially thought as the minority SNP government needs the support of at least one other party to pass its budget.

Last year the Greens secured a massive 11th-hour reprieve for local authorities which saved £6 million for Highland Council alone.

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