Highland Council set a budget with health and prosperity and post-pandemic recovery at its core yesterday.
The Independent administration joined forces with the SNP opposition group and non-aligned councillors to collaborate on a 2021/22 budget prioritising investment in people, infrastructure, places and business across the region.
But the opposition Conservative group in the council described the budget as “very, very disappointing”, accusing the council of “unjustifiable cuts and unaffordable price hikes”.
Councillors agreed that council tax is to be frozen this year thanks to a Scottish Government subsidy, and approved a boost in the council’s non-earmarked reserves to sit at a minimum of £24.7 million.
A one-off sum of more than £9 million has been allocated to an investment plan with a £6 million economic prosperity fund at its core.
It includes £1.5 million for tourist services, £2.1 million to area committees to invest locally and an extra £10,000 each to all wards for their discretionary funds.
A further £2.25 million is earmarked for a recovery, improvement and transformation fund.
The council’s capital plan will see investment of £260 million across the region over the next two years, including £20 million on roads.
Depute leader councillor Alasdair Christie moved the budget.
He said: “A more positive government settlement than anticipated, together with in-year financial prudence and building reserves during the previous year, has enabled a stronger foundation to address the many challenges we face moving forward.
“This is a very positive budget for the Highland region, which will target resources to stimulate growth and recovery, thereby improving health and prosperity in our area.”
SNP group leader Raymond Bremner said working together was for the benefit of everyone, in “challenging and unprecedented times”.
He said: “The investment agreed here today enables a more positive outlook for the immediate and long-term future of our Highland communities.”
Councillor Andrew Jarvie, leader of the Conservative opposition group presented an amended budget including a 1.84% rebate in council tax, £26m spend on roads, and a £4m dip into the reserves to fund greater investment in roads and communities.
He said: “One thing Covid has shown is the role communities have to play in daily life as they stepped up and delivered services to a high standard.
“The pressure on family budgets can’t be understated.
“Inverness is the highest furloughed constituency in the UK and for many, the pandemic has meant a 20% pay cut is a good scenario for many people.
“When we return to normal many Highland residents will be scarred from Covid with a debt and emotional burden which will take years to recover from.”
Mr Jarvie said now of all times is not the moment to build up reserves.
“This crisis is why we have reserves, I struggle to morally justify building them up when logic would take the money in another direction, as other councils are doing.
“This is a very , very disappointing budget.
“The proclamations of collaboration we heard really mean nothing when the net outcome is the same as every other budget – simply unjustifiable cuts and unaffordable price hikes.”
But the Tories’ budget failed to find favour, voted down by 58 votes to 11.
Afterwards, Mr Christie said: “Now we need to get on with the real work to get recovery well and truly underway in the Highlands and to be sure we invest and create as many jobs as possible for the people who are out of work or under threat of redundancy.”