High­land house­hold­ers

Bud­get: Tax in­creases and ser­vice cuts – with warn­ing of more to come

The Press and Journal (Highlands & Islands) - - News Highlands & Islands - BY IAIN RAMAGE

High­land Coun­cil last night de­liv­ered a tough bud­get with tax in­creases and ser­vice cuts.

The end of the Scot­tish Gov­ern­ment’s coun­cil-tax freeze means house­hold­ers will pay more for less next year to help plug a £20mil­lion fund­ing gap.

And coun­cil leader Mar­garet David­son warned of more aus­ter­ity to come, in­di­cat­ing sim­i­lar sav­ings were likely to be needed in each of the next two years.

A spe­cial meet­ing in In­ver­ness con­firmed the nec­es­sary fund­ing for a £ 550mil­lion pack­age, aided by the first coun­cil­tax rise since an SNP freeze was im­posed nine years ago.

There will be amin­i­mum 3% coun­cil tax in­crease from April and ad­di­tional Scot­tish Gov­ern­ment-im­posed bur­den on the 27% of High­landers liv­ing in band E to H homes.

The tax in­crease will raise an ex­tra £3.5mil­lion for the coun­cil.

In a pre-bud­get U-turn, the coun­cil dropped plans to re­duce money it gives NHS High­land for adult care. That £1.2mil­lion will come from emer­gency re­serves.

Coun­cil­lors’ long-held frus­tra­tion over gov­ern­ment fund­ing over­flowed with the SNP ad­min­is­tra­tion at Holy­rood ac­cused of “dis­re­spect­ing” com­mu­ni­ties and coun­cils by at­tempt­ing to “mis­lead” peo­ple about the true scale of coun­cil grant.

The lo­cal author­ity is­sued a warn­ing to NHS High­land chiefs that they should not ex­pect a “blank cheque” to­wards in­te­grated health ser­vices in­her­ited by the coun­cil as part of re­cent re­forms.

The coun­cil’s fi­nance di­rec­tor Derek Yule urged coun­cil­lors to plan a longterm fi­nan­cial strat­egy and to ur­gently re­plen­ish the author­ity’s emer­gency re­serves hav­ing dipped into the fund once again this year.

The pot has now shrunk to be­low £9mil­lion – less than half its value a decade ago.

Mr Yule said: “The scale of the chal­lenge has been un­prece­dented. The level of changes in the last cou­ple of months has been un­prece­dented.”

Mak­ing a rare po­lit­i­cal com­ment, he said that through var­i­ous ref­er­en­dums, elec­tions and tax pow­ers trans­fer­ring to Scot­land, “sig­nif­i­cant un­cer­tainty” had been cre­ated leav­ing politi­cians at all lev­els “un­able or un­will­ing to make long-term fi­nan­cial com­mit­ments.”

Coun­cil­lor David­son claimed that “from Dur­ness to Dal­whin­nie,” coun­cil jobs had been saved, with spe­cial pro­tec­tion for ed­u­ca­tion, roads main­te­nance and adult care. She and sev­eral col­leagues on other benches con­demned the Scot­tish Gov­ern­ment. In­de­pen­dent, Lib­eral Demo­crat and Labour mem­bers said in­creased fund­ing from the UK Gov­ern­ment had not been passed on by the SNP gov­ern­ment in Ed­in­burgh.

Mrs David­son said: “What’s been miss­ing has been re­spect and fair­ness. I’m weary of the smoke and mir­rors and hav­ing to check ex­actly what a state­ment means when it comes in front of us.

“It re­minds me of Ge­orge Or­well’s novel 1984 and the Min­istry of Truth. Is that how we want to run our coun­try – by spin­ning and run­ning away with halftruths so peo­ple are confused? It shows a lack of re­spect for the pub­lic, try­ing to pull the wool over their eyes.”

She said a late an­nounce­ment of ex­tra fund­ing meant it was “a £20mil­lion

“The scale of the chal­lenge has been un­prece­dented”

cut in­stead of a £26mil­lion cut.”

Labour group deputy leader Deirdre Mackay said: “This bud­get from Scot­tish Gov­ern­ment proved dif­fi­cult for sea­soned pub­lic fi­nance pro­fes­sion­als to fol­low. Even the fi­nance min­is­ter him­self got into a boorach on more than one oc­ca­sion.

“The least we should ex­pect is a process that’s trans­par­ent and in­for­ma­tive, and this bud­get was nei­ther.”

SNP group leader Max­ine Smith be­gan her re­sponse to the bud­get state­ment by stat­ing she was “not here to de­fend the Scot­tish Gov­ern­ment”.

She said: “We may be in the same party but I ac­cept there has been some con­fu­sion. But I don’t see the dif­fer­ence be­tween the con­fu­sion in our set­tle­ment and the con­fu­sion in this flu­id­ity of bud­get that’s been (around) since De­cem­ber.”

She ar­gued that the coun­cil had failed to “poverty-proof” the bud­get to pro­tect peo­ple in the most de­prived ar­eas.

Echo­ing that, Liz Gor­don, whose GMB union rep­re­sents sev­eral thou­sand coun­cil staff, said: “There will be fewer jobs and ameni­ties for the most marginalised in our com­mu­ni­ties and more pres­sure on staff.”

A spokesman for the Scot­tish Gov­ern­ment said: “We’ve treated lo­cal gov­ern­ment very fairly de­spite the cuts to the Scot­tish bud­get from the UK Gov­ern­ment. Tak­ing next year’s set­tle­ment, in­clud­ing the ex­tra £ 160mil­lion an­nounced on Fe­bru­ary 2 plus the other sources of in­come avail­able to coun­cils through re­forms to coun­cil tax and fund­ing for health and so­cial care in­te­gra­tion, the over­all in­crease in spend­ing power to sup­port lo­cal author­ity ser­vices now amounts to over £400mil­lion (3.9%). High­land Coun­cil’s over­all in­crease in spend­ing power to sup­port lo­cal author­ity ser­vices will amount to al­most £20.4mil­lion (4.4%).”

ANGER: At a bud­get meet­ing yes­ter­day coun­cil­lors ac­cused the SNP ad­min­is­tra­tion at Holy­rood of at­tempt­ing to ‘mis­lead’ peo­ple about the true scale of coun­cil grant

Deirdre Mackay: boorach

TALK­ING OVER: After the dust has set­tled from yes­ter­day’s spe­cial bud­get meet­ing High­land house­holds will be left pay­ing their first coun­cil tax rise in nine years

Max­ine Smith: fail­ure to ‘poverty-proof’ bud­get

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