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Surplus of more than £20 million for the Highland Council despite Covid pandemic

By Scott Maclennan

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Locator Highland Council Headquarters on Glenurquhart Raod.Inverness.Picture: Gary Anthony..
Locator Highland Council Headquarters on Glenurquhart Raod.Inverness.Picture: Gary Anthony..

Highland Council has managed to end the financial year with a surplus of more than £20 million despite the horrendous difficulties and pressures posed by the Covid pandemic as well as the massive changes presented by Brexit.

Earlier dire predictions of a deficit nearing £100 million proved to be unfounded as increased government funding linked to Covid enabled a positive financial position.

The audited accounts are set to be agreed by the Audit and Scrutiny committee on Thursday and they lay bare not just the financial performance for the previous 12 months.

They show not just how the local authority tried to move ahead but also the bare bones of where money was spent and also who got it including significant rises in officers getting higher pay.

The bottom line funding saw a Scottish Government grant of £425.5 million, non-domestic rates came in at £92.3 million, and council tax was £129.7 million, totalling £647.5 million.

The budget for services – excluding council housing – came to £607 million but the final spend was just over £586 million leading to a surplus of £20.3 million but including the total funding just over £61 million which was paid back into reserves.

The payroll costs took up more than half the spend and was budgeted at £334.8 million but actually came in £14.2 million under budget with the pay for the 74 councillors coming to £1.4 million – just £27,000 more than two years ago.

One big change was the rise in the number of high-ranking officials getting paid more across the various pay bands starting from £50,000 a year as compared to 2019.

Those on £50,000 – £54,999 shot up from 254 to 321; there were 14 more getting £55,000 – £59,999; 11 more getting £65,000 – £69,999; three more getting £70,000 – £74,999; and four started getting between £90,000 and £94,999 and one individual got between 110,000 - 114,999

But there was a decline in those getting £60,000 – £64,999 which went from 95 to 76 while in 2019 there was one person each in the 150,000 - 154,999, 115,000 - 119,999, 100,000 - 104,999 pay bands that now no longer are.

The council’s debt also grew hitting £1.6 billion, up from £1.56 billion in 2019 while at the same time its asset base shrunk from £3 billion in 2019 to £2.8 billion now.

Financing costs, essentially the annual interest and principal repayment costs on the borrowing, stands at 9.48 per cent of the annual net spend.

However, there was good news as the accounts illustrated what the council was able to achieve through the Covid pandemic and the vital role it had in supporting both people and businesses as well as concentrating on its more usual priorities.

A total of £138 million in Covid business grants payments were made to over 9000 Highland businesses while around 4700 pupils and their families benefited from multiple free school meal vouchers and hardship payments.

The creation of a £270,000 fuel support fund helped those households experiencing fuel insecurity while in the far north funding to bring back scheduled air services at Wick John O’Groats Airport through a public service obligation.

Two new schools were completed – Alness Academy and Merkinch Primary – while major funding was secured for a new Nairn Academy and Broadford Primary.

Highland Indicative Regional Spatial Strategy Bold new thirty-year vision for how the Highland region can grow and prosper, whilst also supporting the delivery of national priorities and outcomes

A management plan was approved to meet the growth in visitors to the Highlands including 24 new infrastructure projects while there were 11 community asset transfers during the year – some dedicated to visitor management.

The council’s renewable energy programme saw the installation of Solar PV units at 33 local authority sites across the region, generating a total of over 2.3MW of energy and reducing carbon emissions

The five year strategic housing plan was approved to deliver up to 500 new affordable homes each year until 2026.

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