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Breaking up of Highland Council thrust onto the national agenda by all three FM leadership candidates

By Hector MacKenzie

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Ash Regan, Humza Yousaf and Kate Forbes. Picture: Callum Mackay
Ash Regan, Humza Yousaf and Kate Forbes. Picture: Callum Mackay

The prospect of Highland Council being broken up and replaced by smaller entities – including, for example, an Inverness City Council – was addressed by all three candidates.

The unwieldy size of the local authority has been a regular source of frustration amongst communities across the Highlands with some harking back to the days when smaller councils were more accountable to local people.

Ash Regan had an attempt at equating the Highland Council area to the size of Belgium before confirming that she is open to change in the structure of the local authority.

She said: "I haven't given any thought about how it would be done. I am definitely on board with the idea of looking in to doing it because I totally agree it's too big, it's unwieldy and I can understand when there's something of that scale it feels like it's very disconnected to local communities."

Humza Yousaf said: "I'm very open to looking at whether that needs opened up and whether we could make Highland Council smaller and more localised and broken up particularly given the reach and size and scale of it. I deal with that at health board level where there are some challenges which are very different in Argyll and Bute to challenges in north Highland for example.

"It's not just about devolving to local government even if that structure is smaller. It's about do we get from that structure to devolving into the likes of community councils who do an incredible job up and down the country or to local community groups. Don't just give funding and the funding mechanisms to local government, they are important, they are our key partners."

He went on: "For me the most important thing is getting the resource into the hands of the people who are delivering services on the ground."

Kate Forbes, who had earlier sparked debate by openly mooting breaking up Highland Council at an earlier debate, first acknowledged with a smile "that there are a number of esteemed Highland councillors in the audience".

She said: "This needs to be done collaboratively. This is not about the Scottish Government coming along and imposing a review. There's a few things I'd say about Highland Council, the first is not only is it vast but it's totally different. The issues in the middle of Inverness are fundamentally different from the issues in Wick."

She was asked if she would envisage, for example, an Inverness City Council and several other parts? She said: "There is a case for Inverness to have a city council and then we look at the rest of the land mass, much of which is in my constituency. Lochaber and Skye are not strangers to having their own regional council areas and they already have structures in place for example making their own localised funding decisions.

"You find the efficiencies by ensuing that things like finance and HR that no one really cares about unless you are accountant are centralised and the councillors on the front line and our workers have the freedom and the flexibility to fill the potholes they want to fill rather than having to get permission from the centre."

She went on to say: "I don't think the public cares too much about who the chief executive is. They want to know that when they raise a concern about their local council area that it will get fixed. That's what they care about – people on the front line."

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