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Highland Covid resilience funds to be used more flexibly- but not to fix the region’s play parks

Highland Councillor Ron MacWilliam is against Covid-reslience money being used for to fix Highland Council play parks.
Highland Councillor Ron MacWilliam is against Covid-reslience money being used for to fix Highland Council play parks.

Unspent Covid-19 resilience money in the north should be spent more flexibly to support current hardship, mental health issues and future recovery.

But councillors at the communities and place committee on Wednesday dismissed the idea of using any of the money towards an estimated £3.4m bill to fix the region’s run-down playparks.

At the start of the pandemic, most council wards were awarded £16,000 from Scottish Government funds, initially to support the sick and elderly.

Some wards were given £20,000, but a council report being considered at the meeting suggested ward funds should now be equalised to this level, to support aspects of mental health and economy recovery.

This will cost £240,000, added to the council’s overall budget gap currently standing at £8.7m.

The sum of £100,000 has already been agreed by councillors to go towards the play park situation after Cromarty Firth councillors Maxine Smith and Pauline Munro fought to get a central play park budget back on the table after it was used in 2018 to help plug the funding gap at that point.

Councillors furious as play park money may go to fund Highland Council budget gap

Due to the pandemic, that money is currently on hold.

A report before councillors said the way the resilience funds are spent should be revisited given the socio-economic impacts now affecting more communities.

The original level of grant award of £500 should now be increased to £1500, with ward managers being able to administer the fund.

Unspent money should be carried into next financial year, the report recommends.

Ness-side member Ron MacWilliam said play parks and Covid response are not linked.

He said: “We shouldn’t be earmarking this budget to go into other budgets which are long-term items.

“We can’t cure them with £100,000 out of the emergency resilience budget, it’s crazy.”

Mr MacWilliam criticised the council for the low level of Covid resilience awards, the difficulty of claiming them and councillors turning down applications from groups.

He said: “Many local authorities agreed to hand out grants of up to £3,500.

“£500 was particularly low, when community groups trying to get going had to come back a week or two later to get it again in the middle of a fast moving situation, it created an unnecessary barrier.

“This was a lost opportunity, the council could have built up much stronger community capacity if funding had simply been handed over.”

Mr MacWilliam also criticised any inference that Covid was over.

He said: “I was disturbed that shortly after the pandemic kicked off I heard talk of recovery with Covid being discussed in the past tense.

“Nine months later, this pandemic is not over. Covid ward discretionary funds should still be in place for the purpose.

Sutherland councillor Kirsteen Currie was also scathing of the idea of spending resilience money on playparks.

She said: “My ward had the worst fuel poverty in the UK before the pandemic.

“For me this money should go towards recovery and emergency use, supporting the vulnerable, bulk-buying wood.

“I can’t sell to my constituents the idea of spending money on play parks, we need to focus on what communities need right now, play parks can wait until there is a strategic plan for them.”

Dingwall council Margaret Paterson said play parks should wait until summer.

“At the moment we should look out for out vulnerable people.

“Warmth and food are the most important things to see them through the winter.”

The councillors agreed that the remaining Covid resilience funding could be used for whatever is felt appropriate, but if not for humanitarian purposes, including play parks, applications should go to area committees to agree.

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