Up to 1,000 staff could lose their jobs, children’s classroom hours could be cut and burial charges could rise under radical Highland Council plans to slash its budget by £64million.
The harsh realities of what the spending squeeze is likely to mean were spelled out yesterday as the local authority outlined a series of potential measures to balance its books over the next five years.
Bin collections could also be reduced, funding for Eden Court Theatre and leisure services could be slashed and charges could be introduced at more car parks across the north.
The council’s budget leader Maxine Smith said all local authorities were facing “difficult times” and that tough decision would have to be made.
Proposals unveiled yesterday indicated primary school hours could be reduced and teaching jobs could go as the council embarks on a wide-ranging drive to cut costs.
Shortening the school working week would save £3.2million a year, but a leading union official warned last night that the knock-on effect on working parents, as well as the potential loss of full-time staff in schools, was a major concern.
Pupils in primaries four, five, six, and seven, could have their time spent in class cut by 30 minutes a day.
This could include a later start, an earlier finish, or a longer lunch break.
Cromarty Firth councillor Ms Smith said: “These are very difficult times for public services and we are not alone in facing very difficult decisions.
“The scale of savings mean we must look at changing the way we provide some services, and reducing others.
“This will mean a reduction in the number of staff we employ, and the number of buildings we use, and will impact on the services we provide.”
A budget consultation document is available on the council’s website, and will also be analysed by a citizens’ panel, comprising 2,800 members, as well as the 200-strong communities’ panel.
The paper says: “Many of the proposals contained in this consultation are not pleasant. They reflect the lack of choice now available to us, given the level of savings we have already made over the past eight years.
“Wherever possible, the proposals look at causing the least impact. We have had to look at changing how we provide some services and reducing others considerably, especially where we do not have a statutory duty to provide them.
“We need to know how these savings proposals would impact on you, your family, friends and your community.”
Several parents have already made their views clear on possibility of school hours being reduced.
Jason Hasson, who has three children at Tarradale Primary School and is a member of its parent council, said: “I know that money needs to be saved, but I don’t want it to be saved to the detriment of the children.”
Lynn Main’s daughter attends Millbank Primary School at Nairn and her son is at Nairn Academy.
She said: “I would like to keep the school day the way it is. I don’t think you should change something that isn’t broken. If it is just to save money, the council should be looking in a different area.”
The Unison union’s Inverness branch secretary, John Gibson, said: “Although there will be savings made, parents will be faced with having to pay more for child care.
“In other council areas where this has been introduced, they have changed the week to teaching all day between Monday and Thursday, followed by a half-day on a Friday.
“Teachers are currently allowed non-class contact time, to carry out preparation work, with what is called ‘visiting teachers’ taking their class.
“Part of the cuts being suggested include cutting back on visiting teachers, but do they expect pupil support assistants to do this work? This is another area of concern for the union.”