Highland Council service points under threat again

Inverness Service Point will be one of 13 main contact centres for Highland Council services
Inverness Service Point will be one of 13 main contact centres for Highland Council services

The future of service points across the Highlands is under threat again after the council unveiled new money-saving proposals.

Some 22 communities will lose their public counters, with one public sector union claims that dozens of jobs will be at risk.

Just 13 service points in major towns and villages will survive, being rebranded “community hubs” and providing a full range of services.

Now residents are being given the chance to have their say on the proposals in a public consultation which will run until March.

The public counters won a stay of execution during budget negotiations last year after a huge wave of public outcry at proposals to shut 23 of 35 offices.

A cross-party group of councillors has spent the past nine months examining the case for retaining each of the threatened service points.

The changes because the number of people visiting service points has dropped in the past few years.

Many use the telephone and internet in their dealings with the council.

However the new proposals are similar to those released last year, with Kyle the only service point to be saved from the original closure list.

Shutting 22 service points will save around £355,000, with around half of the money to be invested in improving telephone and online services.

The rest will go towards plugging the council’s budget gap.

Last night John Gibson, of Unison, said that around 26 members of staff faced losing their jobs. The majority are female, part-time workers in remote areas, where alternative employment is difficult to find.

He said: “This is devastating news for people in the 22 service points.

“They will be losing their local, face-to-face contact with Highland Council. These are dedicated staff.”

He said it was understood that library staff employed by High Life Highland would absorb the task of helping members of the public access council services at the access points.

Mr Gibson said that the move to cashless offices, had “pushed a lot of people away” from services points.

He said that the council had “engineered” the drop in visitors to the counters.

The council’s main centres of public contact are proposed to be in Inverness (Church Street), Nairn, Aviemore, Dingwall, Alness, Tain, Golspie, Wick, Thurso, Ullapool, Kyle, Portree and Fort William.

But there will also be 17 special “access points” will be created in local libraries, allowing people to book appointments for various services, print out information and application forms and use computers.

These will be located communities losing their service points – Muir of Ord, Fortrose, Invergordon, Hilton (Inverness), Ardersier, Grantown, Mallaig, Kinlochleven, Broadford, Lochcarron, Bettyhill, Bonar Bridge, Brora, Dornoch, Helmsdale, Lairg and Kingussie.

The future of service provision in five more communities, including Fort Augustus, Durness, Acharacle, Gairloch and Lochinver, is still up in the air.

Various ideas are being explored, such as regular surgeries – similar to those run by MSPs – and the use of mobile libraries.

Councillor Audrey Sinclair, who is chairwoman of the customer services board of 10 elected members which undertook the review, said: “Before any decision can be made, it is important to hear the views of the people that live in these areas so that we can understand how any changes may impact on communities. We also want to hear any alternative options local people may want to suggest for the way services are delivered.”

She added: “I am please we have now reached the stage of going out to consultation. I would stress, however, that these are proposals we are consulting on and no decisions have been made. We would welcome all views and we will take these into consideration before a final decision is made.”