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Funding feud as aid for disabled set to be axed

By Jamie Hall

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Councillor Maxine Smith.
Councillor Maxine Smith.

A HEATED row has erupted as the future of a learning project for disabled adults in Ross-shire hangs in the balance.

NHS Highland last week confirmed plans to pull funding from the horticultural project for 16 people at the Isobel Rhind Centre in Invergordon.

Supporters of the scheme insist it provides work and fosters social skills among a vulnerable group, and that its loss will have a "devastating" impact on the group’s mental and physical health.

The decision prompted a furious reaction from the community and political figures, including Cromarty Firth councillor Maxine Smith (SNP), who launched a petition in a bid to save the 10-year-old initiative.

Cllr Smith’s petition has so far attracted more than 9000 signatures.

But in a pointed attack, Labour MSP Rhoda Grant accused the councillor of hypocrisy – placing the blame for the budget cut at the door of the Scottish Government.

"I support this campaign fully. However if the SNP government funded NHS Highland and Highland Council properly, this unsettling situation could have been avoided," said Mrs Grant. "The fact that Maxine Smith has launched this campaign when her own SNP government is forcing NHS Highland to make these damaging cuts – affecting projects such as this – is complete hypocrisy.

"I suggest the councillor gets on the hotline to her contacts in the Scottish Government to complain.

"Scottish Labour put forward an alternative Scottish budget that would have funded this project and other services that are now facing cuts, but it was voted down by the SNP and Tories.

"This is a thriving project which is of great benefit to adults with special needs, allowing them to experience horticultural work.

"I sincerely hope it wins its battle to receive funding next year.

"However, for it to become sustainable for another 10 years, the SNP government will need to fund NHS Highland appropriately."

Hitting back, Cllr Smith accused Mrs Grant of trying to gain a political advantage from the situation, and insisted that the decision to cut the project’s funding was made by NHS Highland alone.

"Saving the garden project at the Isobel Rhind Centre is of vital importance," she said.

"It is about serving the vulnerable adults of Ross and Cromarty, not politics. Mrs Grant should be ashamed of herself trying to gain political capital on the misery of innocent people.

"I have been lobbying NHS Highland and have a meeting with them next week, at which I hope to put forward alternative proposals for saving some funding and retaining the garden project.

"Let’s remember how the NHS choose to spend their money is operational; the Scottish Government gives them a grant settlement and they have to manage it.

"Can Rhoda come up with anything substantial or is that her total contribution to the 16 people who are about to lose their beloved garden project? At least I am trying to put things right and offer suggestions.

"I am disgusted by her attitude as well as saddened and I think the people who I represent in Invergordon would feel the same way.

"There are always alternatives when it comes to budget cuts and if I did have a hotline to Scottish Government ministers I would certainly thank them for giving extra funding to the NHS right across Scotland."

And she added that the SNP had "given the health service more funding than ever before, completely wiping out NHS Highland’s debt, which was around £35m."

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