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Details behind Highland Council's agreed 'outline' budget will only be known in two weeks

By Scott Maclennan

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What will the budget mean for the Highlands? We will find out for sure in two weeks.
What will the budget mean for the Highlands? We will find out for sure in two weeks.

Highland Council has passed what it calls an “outline” budget for the year allocating cuts, investment, priorities and changes worth £602 million – but without stating how they will precisely be delivered.

That information will come at another full council meeting in March when the operational plan will be revealed that will “underpin the delivery of a range of change activity across the council.

The lack of details was perhaps the most consistent complaint from opposition councillors who struggled to work out how savings or investment could or could not be made and even if they would work.

Each year the council has to set two budgets. The capital or infrastructure investment budget details how it will invest in schools and roads and the like. The budget just agreed, the revenue, is focussed on funding services day to day.

That has to be a balanced budget and the local authority is grappling with an unprecedented shortfall of £65.5 million this year, which is projected to be £113 million over three years – the projected timescale of the financial proposals.

Councillor Alasdair Chrisite. Picture: James Mackenzie.
Councillor Alasdair Chrisite. Picture: James Mackenzie.

Roads and school investment

The leader of the Liberal Democrat Alasdair Christie was clearly exasperated by that approach and submitted an amendment to try to help “for once, some people who are vulnerable and inject some much needed money into our roads.”

The main clauses sought £30 million for additional roads maintenance to support the £8 million already agreed and £20 million for St Clement’s Special School in Dingwall, which has waited more than two decades for

He said: “Today has been about change but the biggest weakness of this budget is quite clearly the detail. It's nebulous, vague, hazy, obscure, indistinct, unclear, indefinite, murky, blurred, formless and featureless.

“Do I need to say anymore? There is no detail to it. Very few of the savings have got the back-up to justify what will be achieved but if you are taking this amendment, we can actually sort out, for once, some people who are vulnerable and inject some much needed money into our roads.”

The concern is that if some savings fall through then the council could be in an even worse financial position next year than this year, regardless of what happens the local authority must operate within that budget.

Raymond Bremner, Leader of the Highland Council. Picture: James Mackenzie.
Raymond Bremner, Leader of the Highland Council. Picture: James Mackenzie.

Comprehensive overview

The council leader Raymond Bremner, however, hit back at accusations the budget lacked detail – he said it was abundantly clear from the papers that was the case from the beginning and that all would be made clear at the March meeting.

“I'm glad that Councillor Christie didn't hold back on what he thought of our budget,” he said. “He summarised quite a lot of what you said in five minutes flat. I really believe that the papers have given a comprehensive overview of the intent of the council administration.”

He continued: “There are many points in this budget where questions were asked in respect of the operational delivery. The operational delivery will be more clearly addressed at the March council [meeting]. We've said that in this paper.”

In fairness, that is true: “This report also gives an outline of the work being taken forward on a delivery plan which will come to the March council and will underpin the delivery of a range of change activity across the council.”

But it also means members were asked to vote on proposals which would be hard if not impossible to over-turn if for example the £12.6 million of cuts to adult social care mean people will lose their support.

Downgrading of principal teachers?

Cllr Christie did try to demand some concrete action on the day while Greens Cllr Chris Baldry was left aghast at the proposed review or the proposed cuts to 70 principal teachers in the region.

The proposal is contradictory: under the heading “Education: Primary Management Restructure” a £495,000 is tabled and then under “risks/mitigations” it is claimed “Principal teachers in primary are not part of the management team.”

It continues: “This will affect 70 staff however the overall number of primary teachers is maintained. Staff affected receive three-year salary conserved.”

But that will be under review and it is not confirmed that it will definitely go ahead as “a screening for impact has been undertaken” which has highlighted how the “predominantly female” staff are impacted.

'Such a fantastic job... We don't need you'

Again Cllr Christie took up the issue addressing the chairman of the education committee John Finlayson and his fellow ward councillor Drew Miller.

Cllr Christie said: “You talk about principal teachers – you said they're doing a fantastic job, such a fantastic job that they'll be gone in three years.

“That's the reality of the proposal, as it stands. ‘Such a fantastic job. Such a fantastic role. We don't need you. In three years time, your post will be deleted.’”

And again, Cllr Bremner defended the budget and vowed that there will “no redundancies” of principal teachers, saying: “To follow on from Cllrs Finlayson and Miller – no redundancies will be made, teaching posts are not being removed.

“It is funding for a half day per week, non-class contact time that's under review and it's important to stress that many schools currently don't receive any such support right now.

“We have two years to undertake the review of the current provision and this will involve teacher representatives from across Highland, this will be a genuine opportunity to develop a collaborative solution which considers best practise in Scotland and further afield to identify ways in which we can assure all primary schools are properly supported.”

The next full council meeting will be held on March 14.

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