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School budgets to be raided to help plug Highland Council's coronavirus black hole

By Scott Maclennan

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Highland Council has been blocked from stopping Covid-19 services like a helpline and humanitarian hubs but a bid to halt a raid of school budgets failed.

The local authority claims its finances are in a dire situation due to a lack of revenue prompting a deficit of between £65 million to £97 million.

No cut could be ruled out by the administration with budget leader Alister Mackinnon warning that no service was “sacrosanct”.

A debate at a council meeting last week about which measures to use to start plugging the budget gap exposed the council as being hugely divided, with members at odds over how to respond to the economic issues sparked by the pandemic.

Many councillors found it difficult to swallow many of the proposed measures to meet that deficit because, despite calls being made since mid-May, the council has failed to produce detailed evidence of how it has calculated its estimates.

But a plan to raid devolved schools management cash sparked anger from both the SNP and the Conservatives who felt the move punished prudent head teachers.

Councillor Graham Mackenzie said he had been promised the last time the council used these budgets for its other uses that it was the last time.

"What was agreed was that the council would access around £3 million of devolved schools management money that should go into schools," he said.

"I find that a travesty because the purported budget deficit has been dreamt up out of thin air without any evidence of calculations being provided, so far as I can see.

"Secondly, last year I was solemnly promised by the chief executive and the budget leader that would be the very last time devolved schools management money would be drawn upon.

"So what was essentially agreed at council was that £3 million that should go towards schools and pupils' education will now be put toward filling in the, as yet imaginary, budget gap."

Councillor Andrew Jarvie claimed victory after tabling an amendment that won the support of councillors to prevent vital Covid-19 services from being chopped after officers indicated that the helpline, humanitarian hubs and support for key workers childcare should end next month.

“This was a big victory against the secrecy which has plagued this council for months," he said.

"We were being asked to cease all additional Covid-19 response services at the end of July, without actually knowing what they were. The report only made a passing mention to what the key worker hubs cost, which was 30 per cent less than first reported to us.

“And the council is still saying the total £50 million-plus reserves 'could' be used to fund these never-more-critical services. This is the exact reason we have reserves. This is once in a lifetime and we have a duty to the Highlands.”

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