Published: 10/02/2017 09:55 - Updated: 10/02/2017 10:03

Highland Council tax to rise three per cent as it looks to plug a £20 million funding gap

Written byEmma Crichton

Highland Council news.
Highland Council news.

JUST 26 Highland Council employees will be granted voluntary redundancy from the authority as it prepares to make a raft of cuts – despite more than 300 people applying.

And compulsory redundancies have not been ruled out as the council takes steps to plug a £20 million gap in funding – including an expected three per cent rise in council tax.

Services including street cleaning, grass cutting, employability support and deprived area funding will see swingeing cuts, causing a loss of 122 full-time equivalent jobs – 55 of which are associated with savings agreed in previous years.

Despite this, the council is only expected to agree to 26 requests for its employee early release scheme, even though it received 326 applications in a month.

When it was unveiled last year, the voluntary redundancy scheme was touted as a way to free up posts so that those losing their jobs through cuts could be re-deployed into new roles.

This has now left almost 100 jobs

unaccounted for but finance director Derek Yule said many of these posts are already vacant and will not require redundancies.

Almost 200 employees were told to prepare for the worst at the end of last year.

"Of the posts affected by the administration’s final savings proposals a significant number are already vacant," he said.

"Many relating to savings approved in prior years have already been deleted with the savings reflected in 2017/18.

"Union officials were briefed [in December] that budget saving proposals led to initial estimates of staff at risk totalling 200. All staff at risk were informed of their status by senior managers on December 8."

Despite this, eight employees remain hanging in the balance and it is hoped they can be re-deployed to other roles.

Budget leader Bill Fernie said this has been a result of receiving £6 million from the Scottish Government and an additional £5 million which will be raised through a council tax rise.

He said: "There were people who applied that we can’t afford to lose but that was always going to happen. There are some roles that because of geography or what the jobs entail we will never be able to afford to lose them."

During last year’s cuts, 811 employees applied for voluntary redundancy but only 340 were accepted.

Cllr Fernie is also hoping to avoid compulsory redundancies.

"We are working towards finding a solution for the staff left," he said.

"Public sector cuts are likely to continue for the next few years so we need to focus on forward planning."

Key points from the draft budget

Council tax: The council will earn an extra £5.4 million in council tax from April.

Tax bands A-D will see a three per cent rise imposed by the local authority while high value properties will see a hike of up to £600 per year due to the three per cent council increase and a nationally imposed rise.

The annual council tax bills will increase by:

Band A £775.33 to £798.67

Band B £904.56 to £931.78

Band C £1033.78 to £1064.89

Band D £1163 to £1199.00

Band E £1421.44 to £1574.04

Band F £1679.89 to £1946.75

Band G £1938.33 to £2346.08

Band H £2326.00 to £2935.10

Job losses: Around 120 full time equivalent jobs will disappear through cuts to services.

Fifty-five of these are a result of savings made in previous years but Derek Yule, director of finance, said many of these jobs are already vacant so will not involve compulsory redundancies.

Staff may also be moved into other posts made available through the early release scheme but not all have been confirmed, leaving some employees under threat.

“The council is pro-actively managing its vacancies to ensure that posts, which become available through natural turnover and are suitable for redeployment, are held for that purpose in the first instance.”

Second homes: Abolish the second home council tax discount to save £500,000.

The council currently gives a 10 per cent reduction on the 4129 second homes across the region.

By removing this discount the owners will have to pay the full second home tax, which is 40 per cent of a full council tax bill, resulting in a rise of up to £232 per year.

Councillors: The number of elected members will reduce from 80 to 74 to save £103,000.

Following the local government elections in May the number of Highland councillors will drop to 74.

This is a national decision but will save the council £103,000 in salaries and national insurance.

Community councils: Remove the £3800 for community council training and election publicity.

Training will now be available online.

Inverness Safe Highlander: Remove transport allowance to save £10,000.

Primary seven pupils attend the event annually to promote community safety, health and crime prevention.

The council currently provides a transport subsidy for pupils to attend the Inverness event.

Other Safe Highlander event travel costs are paid by pupils, schools or other grants so it is proposed the same happens in the city.

Street cleaning: Reduce staff from 79 to 71 and carry out less cleaning in residential areas to save £220,000.

The council has pledged to keep the areas around city and town centres, tourist attractions and educational facilities clean but acknowledged the cleanliness of other areas may take a dip.

The proposal states: “It is proposed that existing standards are maintained in areas of high footfall.

“The savings will be realised by reducing street cleaning activity in residential areas and low usage routes.”

Grass cutting: Cut five full time staff and reduce grass cutting to save £115,000.

Grass on steep bankings and low amenity areas will no longer be cut by the council. Instead, it has been proposed that only a four-foot strip at the top and bottom of bankings is cut.

Low amenity areas will be classed as remote or those liable to flooding and poor drainage.

Marine fuel sales: Increase the mark up by 3p per litre to earn £240,000.

The council sells 22 million litres of marine fuel every year. A 3p per litre increase would allow for a 50 per cent profit boost but the council pointed out this may result in a drop in sales and customer complaints.

Refuse and recycling collection: Introduce charge for garden waste collection and for new/replacement wheelie bins to save £633,000.

Garden waste collection is currently free but households will soon be charged £30 per year to earn £600,000.

All new and replacement blue, green and brown bins will also be charged for, except when the council has lost or damaged them, to bring in an additional £33,000.

Flood alleviation: The budget for maintenance and improvement work will be cut by more than half to save £100,000.

The budget will be reduced to just £57,000 and will only be used to support the Inverness flood scheme.

If work is required elsewhere it will be funded through the roads budget or the capital programme.

Rail concessions: Remove rail travel discount for disabled people or those over 60 to save £120,000.

The council funds half rail fares within the Highlands for residents who are entitled to free bus travel, ie the disabled or over 60s.

Blind and visually impaired people, as well as people who require a travel companion due to disability will not be affected.

Free bus travel will remain in place along with the Highland rail card, which offers half price fares on certain routes for an annual payment of £9.

Reduce adult social care budget by £1.74 million.

The council hopes this will be offset by an increase in NHS funding from the Scottish Government but acknowledged this may see a reduction in care for adults with physical and mental disabilities, particularly in outlying areas.

The report states: “This may result in needs not being fully met and having reduced choice and control over their preferred options for care with little ability to consider care at home.

“It may disproportionately impact upon those in remote or rural areas given the need to potentially need a care home setting and the availability of care home spaces.”

This comes as NHS Highland bosses predict a £100 million shortfall in the next three years.

High Life Highland: Reduce budget by £112,000.

It will be for High Life Highland bosses to decide where the cuts will come from but job losses are expected in libraries, business support and language assistance, as well as one head of service.

Family teams: Cut 2.7 full time equivalent jobs to save £250,000.

The family team provides front-line support in health and social care and covers jobs from school nurses to social workers.

The job losses will be achieved by re-designing the management structure.

Early learning: Reduce funding for partner centres (private nurseries etc) to save £300,000.

The council has suggested pulling funding from 30 centres which only provide sessional childcare instead of full time.

It will be for owners to decide whether to keep the facility open without council funding.

The council statement pointed out this could negatively impact rural areas but said jobs may not be lost as the local authority will be increasing its own childcare provision due to national requirements.

“This could impact the rural economy where centres close in rural areas,” it stated.

“Staff in the main are female so it will impact disproportionately by gender.

“Some staff may be able to be employed by the local authority to meet the staffing compliment for an increased number of children attending local authority nurseries.”

Countryside Rangers: Reduce resources and cut rangers by two full time staff to save £371,000.

Two of the 12 countryside rangers will lose their jobs, a lesser cut than originally expected.

The savings will instead be found by restructuring teams and moving some costs to the council’s capital budget. It may also make it more difficult for the council to uphold public access rights and host events such as guided walks and community health and wellbeing projects.

Tourism and business: Cut staff by three and reduce payments to Visit Scotland to save £440,000.

One graduate development post and a Business Gateway one to one advisor will both be lost.

The council will no longer pay Visit Scotland for Highland-specific marketing.

This could also see fewer events in Highland as national funding packages often require local match funding.

Deprived area employability grants: Reduce grants to employment support and deprived area projects and cut four employability adviser roles to save £880,000.

The team of advisers provides one to one support to help unemployed people into work but this service will have to reduce due to fewer staff.

Grants to other organisations providing deprived area and employability support will also be scrapped, although it is not yet known which groups will lose out.

Reduce the number of council-owned properties to save £150,000.

The council’s property asset management team will identify leased office accommodation which can be sold to make a profit and reduce running costs.

Increase charges in various services to earn £334,000.

Childcare fees will increase by five per cent while charges for training courses, school lets, music tuition, monthly parking, residents parking, waste uplifts, admission charges, vehicle and equipment hire, animal licence, fish export certificates, civil marriage/partnerships, planning fee advertising and photocopies will all rise by 10 per cent.

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