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Highland Council budget: Cuts to children’s charities squeak through, as roads investment and 4% council tax rise agreed

The Highland Council logo surrounded by potholed roads, bins, a laptop and school dinner trays
Highland Council's budget plans affect services across the board. Image: DC Thomson design team

Cuts to a number of children’s charities and arts group were pushed through as Highland Council agreed a new budget during a tense meeting today.

The local authority’s administration revealed earlier this week that it needs to plug a £49m gap to balance the books.

Among its plans was a funding cut to a number of early years groups, as well as several arts, culture, sports, music and community organisations.

An amendment to reverse those cuts from Inverness councillor Isabelle MacKenzie said the decision would have a “disproportionate impact on vulnerable and disabled children, as well as low-income families”.

However, that amendment was defeated by 39 votes to 33.

A raft of other cost-cutting proposals were agreed during the meeting, including a 4% rise in council tax.

Leader laments difficult decisions

Council leader Raymond Bremner started the meeting by saying it had been “one of the toughest years” to try to set a budget.

He said: “It’s just been a perfect storm.

“Inflation is at one of its highest levels. We are in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis and our communities face considerable fuel cost increases.

“Our communities told us they wanted their roads fixed and that they wanted the council to be more contactable.

Council leader Raymond Bremner outlined the scale of the challenge in his speech today. Image: Sandy McCook/DC Thomson

“We had to look at trying to close a gap of almost £50m. As well as facing the challenge of meeting the requests of our Highland communities.”

There was no argument from anyone about the severity of the situation.

Councillor after councillor stood to make up that point.

However, a series of amendments were raised asking for more money to be spent on  road and to reverse proposed cuts to charities and community organisations.

All of them failed.

To fund these, the cash would come out of the council’s reserves.

Roads: a prickly issue

Opposition leader Alasdair Christie warned earlier this week the budget would have a “catastrophic effect” on the Highlands.

The administration’s proposals set aside more money to help fix the region’s roads.

But councillor Christie argued that this didn’t go far enough. However, his amendment asking for that also failed by 40 votes to 29.

Councillor Christie said: “If you really care about our roads, you would take this option and do more.

“That’s what your communities want us to do.”

Opposition leader Alasdair Christie outside the meeting today. Image: Sandy McCook/DC Thomson

Many of the arguments in today’s meeting centred on whether or not the council should use more of its reserves to fund shortfalls.

It was already proposed to use £23m of reserves to avoid further savings having to be made.

But in the budget papers, the council’s outgoing head of finance Edward Foster – who leaves his post tomorrow – said: “At this time of immense financial challenge it is essential to have the maximum possible level of non-earmarked general fund revenue reserve.

“This reserve will allow the council to manage both short and medium-term financial risks.”

Dispute over cause of council’s financial headache

Despite that warning, there were several amendments asking for certain savings to be cancelled and repeated calls for more money to be taken from those reserves.

But the joint SNP-Independent administration stuck together and every amendment put forward came up short.

One theme of today’s meeting was determining who is to blame for the council’s current predicament.

A petition against the loss of funding for SNAP (the Special Needs Action Project), one of the groups affected today, was delivered to the Highland Council HQ in Inverness in 2019.

Conservative group leader Helen Crawford said the local authority had been underfunded by the Scottish Government for years.

While Green councillor Chris Ballance pointed the finger at “13 years of Westminster Tory austerity”.

Labour councillor Andrew MacKintosh was one of several who lamented the proposed cut in funding to charities and early years services.

He said: “It’s no use saying thanks for all your work, and then voting them into oblivion.

“Why is it always those that are in most need that have to bear the brunt?”

More challenges still lie ahead for Highland Council

A huge chunk of the local authority’s 74 councillors had the chance to have their say during the five-hour discussion.

But ultimately, it appears that those comments held little sway.

Most of the votes were passed by extremely similar margins. That suggests most councillors had made their minds up before taking their seats.

Council leader Bremner summed up his argument about not using more of the reserves with a gloomy reminder of what lies ahead.

He said: “We need to understand that we’ve still got more challenging years coming down the road.”