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New council charges to hit tens of thousands of Highland residents

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Tens of thousands of Highland residents are poised to be hit by a raft of new charges – and funding for grass-cutting, street cleaning and disabled people is to be slashed.

The full impact of council plans to cut another £10million from spending on services has been laid bare ahead of a crunch budget-setting meeting next week.

As well as introducing the maximum 3% council tax rise, the local authority’s independent-led administration wants to remove a 10% discount for 4,129 properties which are second homes.

Free garden waste collections for 67,000 households would also end, with residents to be hit with a £30 charge if they want the service, while fees for bulky uplifts would rise and commercial waste charges would soar for 4,500 businesses.

Half-fare rail concessions for over-60s will stop for everyone except blind and disabled people under the proposals.

Street cleaning would be focussed on city and town centres, tourist attractions and schools, but reduced in residential areas, resulting in eight job losses and a saving of £220,000.

And spending on grass-cutting services would be reduced by 5%, meaning five job losses and a £115,000 saving, with town centres, cemeteries and sports pitches to be prioritised over steep banks, and herbicides to replace strimming of edges.

Meanwhile. cutting £1.174million from adult social care will lead to a reduction in care packages for 90 people with learning or physical disabilities, with all other care packages to be reviewed as well, despite warnings from officials that it would have a “significant impact”.

Last night, council leader Margaret Davidson defended the plans.

“It’s a budget in one of the most difficult years we’ve ever faced,” she said.

“The Scottish Government has raided the budgets of local authorities to deliver on their own priorities.

“What we have attempted to do is lessen the impact to jobs and services and we believe what we have is a fair and decent budget.”

A total of 66 jobs would be axed as a result of the proposals, almost half what was proposed in leaked documents in December.

A less severe than expected funding settlement has meant that the council’s budget gap has reduced from £26million to £20.344million.

The extra £3.51million from the council tax rise, and previously agreed cuts, including a further 55 job losses still to come, leaves a shortfall of £10.41million.

The administration has proposed less significant cuts that previously expected in some areas, including highly controversial plans to axe the council’s entire ranger service.

Council leaders now propose reducing the service by two from the current 12, and to consult on transferring the remaining team of 10 rangers to the authority’s arm’s-length leisure body Highlife Highland, which could take over the management and develop “a more commercial approach”.

The consequence would be to reduce its “geographical reach” and for “some activities” to be reviewed.

A total of 23 vacant posts will be axed under the plans, while there will be a 10% reduction in the budget for the service centre based at Alness, 1,000 calls per day.

The proposals would lead to an £86,000 reduction in funding to third sector organisations, community council training, the Leader programme and a subsidy for transport for P7 children to attend Inverness Safe Highlander events.

The flood prevention budget would be cut by £100,000, family teams would be redesigned with 2.7 jobs cut, while a review would be launched of the 57 “partner centres” that provide early learning and childcare to save £300,000.

On Skye, the Staffin Respite Centre could be merged with the Elgin Residence at Portree High School, despite warnings of a potential “reduced access to respite provision”.

The council’s employability service, who advise unemployed people, would be reviewed and reorganised to save £610,000, cutting the team from nine workers to four advisers plus one project officer.

SNP opposition leader Maxine Smith said that what was proposed was “much more bearable” than the previous plans.

She said: “This is mostly due to the better than expected initial settlement from the Scottish Government, followed up in February by the announcement of a further £8million in total to the Highland Council.

“This, along with further cash in the grant, committed to specific extra areas of services within Highland Council, has meant that the cuts are in no way as distasteful as we had expected them to be.

“There are still some areas of concern in there though and the SNP Group will discuss the full implications at a special meeting of our group tomorrow.

“We will then make a decision on how we wish to handle any savings we find unpalatable.

“My initial thoughts are that we need to consider how these impact on the Council’s poverty agenda, so we will be paying particular attention to this.

“It is vital we protect the most vulnerable in the Highlands.”

Highland Council’s budget leader last night defended the ruling administration’s controversial package of savings measures.

Bill Fernie said: “We have looked carefully at all the savings and have done our best to reduce savings where we can to protect the most vulnerable people in our communities.

“This means that we can significantly reduce the savings which were originally proposed for childcare and early learning.

“Also, some of the cuts to the £4 illion funding which goes to third sector groups, will now not be taken. We have also significantly reduced the planned cut to adult services.

“£20 million is still a huge amount to take out of our budget, but we are trying our best to mitigate the impact of these savings on communities and on our staff.

“The level of staffing reductions required is considerably lower than the amount anticipated during the earlier stages of the budget process.”

He added: “Significant consultation has taken place with trade unions and a workforce management strategy including the use of recruitment controls and the reduced use of agency staff has been introduced in order to identify opportunities for the redeployment of staff at risk and to reduce the need for compulsory redundancies.”