Extract from her speech

Highland Council Budget debate

February 2017

This Budget process is all about fact and fiction

Local government funding in Scotland is broken.

We are fighting an uphill battle.

This Budget has proved to be difficult for seasoned public finance professionals to follow - even the Finance Minister himself got into a boorach on more than one occasion.

The matter of the Budget is important because of those who rely on public services which are at the heart of people’s lives and the many employees who quietly get on with the job day in and day out, stretched now to the absolute limits, wondering what on earth is going to happen next.

The least we should expect is a process from Scottish Government that is transparent and informative.

They should admit that there is no additional money, Highland is facing significant cuts and cuts mean job losses and further reductions to already stretched services .

The manipulation of the Budget figures by the Scottish Government is like your boss cutting £100 form your pay, you object and so he reduces it to £50 and then claims he’s given you a rise and expresses delight.

Independent financial experts without any political bias including SPICe state that despite modest increases from Westminster it is the Scottish Government that has hit Councils hardest and disproportionately.

Since 2011 the cuts amount to over £1.6billion.

I find it frankly baffling therefore that a government which portrays itself at every turn as “anti- austerity” would “welcome with delight” a settlement that will impact on Highland jobs, services and communities when it has the levers at its disposal - the new powers of the parliament - to stop the cuts, but lacks the courage to do so.

The Scottish Government has failed to design any new form of fair taxation, sticking to what they’ve discredited for the past 9 years then slapped on a lump on a whim.

It is no good pointing finger at Westminster any more, the buck, quite literally stops with Scottish Government.

For second year in a row Scottish Government has chosen to publish a 1 year budget

We were told last year that this was exceptional – so apparently is this year.

This creates significant problems for councils, and organisations.

It makes planning difficult especially longer term preventative spend.

We all know of organisations in our communities, providing excellent services on a shoe string, which folk rely on, and whose quality and continuity of provision is undermined by this uncertainty.

A return to multi-year budgeting is urgently needed.

As regards the issue of devolution v centralisation of priorities - as democratically-elected representatives of the people of the Highlands, we are also seeing increased interference with local government.

I cite the Equity Fund as the most recent example.

Attainment is not just addressed within schools.

We know this.

The Children and Young People’s Commissioner has clearly stated that it would be very difficult for First Minister to close the attainment gap at the same time as reducing Council budgets. Resourcing and allowing Highland Council to invest more in early interventions and education, educational psychology, and mental health support would achieve so much more than the Equity Fund.

Councils should not be dictated to by Edinburgh.

This is simply wrong.

It undermines local government.

The more that power control and responsibility is being transferred from Westminster to Edinburgh, the more power and control is being taken by the Scottish Government and centralised in Edinburgh – Replacing one master with another

As power and control is being centralised the responsibility however is being left with Councils to manage., . they criticise Westminster but emulate it at every turn.

Councils are marginalised, left with the responsibility, and then blamed Here in Highland we could do so much more with more levers and funding at our disposal to invest where it’s needed. But we are where we are : We have been forced into a position of cuts, but due to the so-called-additional funding, we welcome the removal of really unpalatable options from the budget. Feedback has shown public to be generally in favour of a rise in council tax to protect frontline services – to this end we are supportive of 3% increase which will help cushion further cuts.

Regarding the issue of maximising income for the council

In terms of charges

Valued services which add to quality of life are under attack and we need to ensure that people are not denied opportunity.

We need to find ways where charges are fair and affordable

We believe charges should be inflation-proofed, and that this should be standard practice to avoid hikes later on.

Development and Infrastructure:

(Europe, Regeneration, Energy)

While we are still in Europe, a new world awaits us.

We must be prepared for the next year , the next couple of years and whatever is going to follow from that.

At a time of such uncertainty particularly important that we do all we can to create growth, help boost jobs.

This requires resources, knowledge and expertise , staff who understand the issues, what is developing, to identify where funding is going to be, to get in and about the Crown Estates issues – opportunity for income but what are the liabilities and responsibilities.

We really need to prioritise Crown Estates and Community Benefit, look at how we can maximise income to help regenerate our communities.

The example of Beatrice grieves me : we’ll be watching the turbines blades generate enormous wealth for shareholders while communities get handed a crumb while infrastructure is crumbling. This is a disgrace.

If companies are making money out of our landscape they should be paying a fair price for it. We also need real opportunities to tackle the scourge of fuel poverty through community heat schemes, and we should be keen to promote more co-operative ways of working.

The moral test of any council is how it treats our young, our elderly and our vulnerable. Social Care is the priority issue for us, and it is one of the most challenging areas of the budget.

The Lead Agency Model adopted in Highland is an extremely progressive and innovative initiative for the delivery of social care.

However, it has always been one where getting an agreed funding package with NHSH has proved extremely problematic.

Need to get to grips with shifting the balance of care.

Daily across Highland we know of situations where insufficient resources and barriers can stand in the way of elderly to be properly cared for in their own homes.

This is causing huge problems and unnecessary additional stress for those in need of care and their families.

This cannot be allowed to continue and must, as a matter of urgency, be looked at in depth between Highland Council and NHS Highland Council

Simply handing over money and expecting NHS to fix things is not going to work

- we could still have the problem.

We need to get to grips with this, communities and services are struggling with the demand and it is only going to increase.

The size of package from Highland Council to NHSH is important.

Of equal importance however is to have a clear understanding and agreement of how we can unblock the barriers to care in the community.

This agenda really needs to be driven forward.

We look forward to a time when local government is allowed to govern and deliver services with sufficient resources to do so.

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