Committee appointments spark bitter row at Highland Council amid allegations of 'smash and grab' by the administration
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Battle lines have already been drawn at Highland Council after the SNP group was accused of a “smash and grab” operation over appointments and their Independent coalition partners were said to have become “slaves.”
The blue touchpaper was what should have been a regular appointment to the NHS Highland board for the council erupted in a full scale debate that effectively defined the battle lines for the coming term.
The administration candidate was SNP Cllr Muriel Cockburn, a former radiographer with years of experience in the NHS and in normal circumstances her appointment would have gone through on the nod.
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But Cllr Ron Gunn was also nominated and he is the chairman of Caithness Health Action Team which has been battling the health board and the Scottish Government for years to re-instate full maternity care in the far north.
One after another, councillors stood up to speak in favour of Cllr Gunn including Struan Mackie, Matthew Reiss, and Andrew Jarvie who urged the chamber to put someone on the health board to make a difference.
Suggestions to divide the role between the two was suggested but not taken further but there was support to lobby for two places on the NHS board and ultimately Cllr Cockburn was elected over Cllr Gunn by 38 votes to 29.
Afterwards, Liberal Democrat opposition leader and Inverness Ness-side Councillor Alasdair Christie attacked council leader Raymond Bremner for not standing up for a candidate from his own ward.
He even went so far as to say Cllr Bremner's position that Caithness remained a joint top priority despite being leader was a "lie" and that the administration does not care “one iota” about rural issues.
But those claims were dismissed by Cllr Bremner who said he was even-handed, saying the LibDem leader forgot he voted for a member from the largely rural Badenoch and Strathspey ward.
He added that he also supported Cllr Gunn's appointment to the joint Council-NHS health and social care committee and he argued opposition parties were given a more generous settlement on committees than the SNP last term.
How the councillors and NHS responded
Opposition leader Cllr Alasdair Christie
“I think what we've seen both at Inverness city area committee and in the full council meeting is a smash and grab by the SNP. And the Independents not caring one iota about rural and isolated parts of Highland.
“It’s a clamour trying to get all jobs for themselves and we try to put forward different views on that to recognise the fact that Caithness, Skye, Lochaber need a voice, need a strong voice and need the infrastructure to be heard.
“And they threw that out the window, totally. I think what we're seeing now is that the Independents have just really become slaves now to the SNP.
“The people we know and have spoken to are disgusted that the first preference votes that they gave to independent councillors for a strong, local voice for their village, for their community, for their town has now just been absorbed into the SNP and steam-rollering forward pushing out everyone else.
“I think local people wanted a local voice, not tied specifically to the government. And what they've got is a party that's now well and truly in the pockets of the SNP and we saw it at the votes.
“An excellent campaigner, who's a champion for health, for Caithness for many a year, who is respected locally, being voted down by Raymond Bremner who said I'm a Caithness Councillor first and foremost.
“Well, only a month in and we've already seen that to be a lie.”
Council leader Cllr Raymond Bremner
“There are many well qualified and suitable candidates at council to share the responsibility of making representation on behalf of all of the Highland area to the NHS – from Caithness, Wester Ross, Badenoch & Strathspey and other areas.
“As leader of the council and as a local member for Caithness, I made sure that I voted responsibly as both.
“What Cllr Christie fails to state is that I voted for Cllr Ron Gunn from Caithness to be on the health, social care and wellbeing committee at council and also on the NHS Highland’s own health and social care committee as well as voting for Cllr Muriel Cockburn to be on the NHS Highland health board.
“This shared the responsibility of the council’s representation across more than one area. I also immediately supported another Caithness councillor, Struan Mackie, in calling for the NHS Board to provide two places, rather than one, to allow an even greater representation to be made from the Highland Council on the Highland Health Board and look forward to taking that discussion forward.
“That could provide another opportunity for a Caithness Councillor to make representation to the NHS Highland.”
NHS Highland spokeswoman
“The make-up of NHS Boards is Scottish Government led and is governed by legislation.
“Each board has one member from each local authority area it covers. Councils can nominate onto the board but, as it is a ministerial appointment, it is the Scottish Government who make the final determination.
“We do, however, have Councillors on our Health and Social Care Committee and Joint Monitoring Committee as a result of our integration arrangements.”