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Budget settlement unlikely to help Highland Council’s financial woes

Council Leader, Councillor Margaret Davidson is concerned about lack of detail on Highland's share of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund
Council Leader, Councillor Margaret Davidson is concerned about lack of detail on Highland's share of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund

Highland Council leadership team says it holds out no great hope of closing its £66.7m budget gap in the light of the Scottish Government’s local government settlement announcement yesterday for 2019/20.

Finance minister Derek Mackay said the government would provide total support of £11.1 billion to local authorities, describing it as a real terms increase in revenue and capital funding, and overall real terms increase in the total local government settlement of more than £210 million.

Cosla says what’s presented as an increase is in reality a cut to the core revenue budget of £175m due to £373m of new commitments, including £210m ring-fenced for early learning and child care.

The news will be discussed by councillors tomorrow in the last full council meeting of the year.

Council leader Margaret Davidson said there was a key change in this year’s budget, that of more risk.

She said: “There’s more risk than there’s ever been. Teacher’s pay awards – we still have the teachers asking for 10%.

“In our budget we took the government’s position of 3% this year and now everything seems to be up in the air so the risk factor is huge, and back on us and how we settle our budget unless the Scottish Government steps in.

“If they say they’ll pay for teacher’s pay awards we have to make sure it’s not coming out of the bottom line of the services when they give use the money, because we’ve had that before.”

Depute leader Alasdair Christie warned: “Budgets are often smoke and mirrors. Often when we’re told it’s a really good deal our director of finance will unpick it and say, actually it isn’t.

“There’s little transparency, it’s going to be closed, hidden and dense to interpret. It’s going to take a week before we actually understand what it means to our communities around Highland.

Mrs Davidson said: “There may be some money put in for specific services, like mental health and social care.

“We’ve had the best part of £1bn coming from UK Government, we need to see how that translates into money for local authorities and NHS. We want social care to be part of it.

“We reckon to be looking at around 10% taken out of our budget over the last five years, and it has affected front line services. We’ve managed pretty well, we haven’t slashed and burned anywhere, but it’s tough on our staff with less people on teams doing jobs.

“That’s why we need a clear-eyed look at where we are and how we’re going to be doing things in the future.”

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