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Have your say on what Higland Council should cut

By Hugh Ross

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Highland Council
Highland Council

THE public is set to be asked again by Highland Council what services it should cut in a bid to make future savings of almost £30 million.

The local authority is poised to carry out another major consultation seeking the views of residents on a range of possible cash-saving measures as it sets out to save £29.7 million from next year up until 2015.

And taxpayers will be invited to offer their opinions on everything from replacing normal street lights with low energy bulbs, charging parents for the hire and repair of musical instruments for children receiving tuition at schools and reviewing the letting charges which schools charge for venues, including janitorial overtime.

In a report to the council, finance manager Brian Porter has estimated pushing through those three changes alone could save a total of £502,000 over two years.

Residents could also be asked whether an estimated £25,000 saving could be made next year by scrapping lunches during council staff training days.

In 2010, the previous Independent-led administration partnered by the Lib Dems and Labour, carried out a similar exercise when it undertook a three-month public consultation and drew up a hit list of 70 possible cuts in a bid to make savings of more than £40 million.

Fewer bin collections, an increase in the cost of school dinners and switching off street lights were among the measures which were tabled and implemented.

Highland councillors will be asked to back the consultation plan proposed by the SNP, Liberal Democrat and Labour administration at a meeting in Inverness today (Thursday).

Dave Fallows, the finance, housing and resources committee chairman, said the 41 savings proposals in the report to the authority would probably be in the consultation but said some could be removed and others added if need be.

He said there had been considerable interest from the public in participating last time around but stressed the final decisions would still be made by councillors because it was what they were paid for.

“The feedback which was received was considered really useful,” said Councillor Fallows. “The likelihood is that it will be run along similar lines and we want to find out what peoples’ views are. When we come to do the consultation we need to have the fullest information that we can present and the public are very much part of the process.

“Eventually we will be looking to get a clear sense and views as to what is important and what isn’t.”

Cllr Fallows added it was also going to discuss how it could improve the consultation for participants.

The consultation would be held in August and September and involve a survey of the council’s Highland Citizens’ Panel which involved more than 2,000 volunteers last time around.

A list of where the possible cuts could be made would be published on the authority’s website and comments invited, while discussions could be held during the council’s regular ward forum events.

A “budget blog” could also be used to give updates but the coalition does not want to produce mass copies of the consultation document so the exercise itself does not run up high costs.

The public responses would be analysed from October onwards and the final budget decisions made by councillors in either December or early next year.

In February the council approved a £602 million budget for this year, which included savings of £18.6 million.

It had anticipated savings of almost £40 million between 2013 and 2015 would be needed. But that forecast has now brightened and fallen by about £10 million because of several factors including underspends on loan charges, a projected increase in Council Tax collection rates and less cash required for budget pressures.

During the last consultation letters were sent to 14,000 Highland households asking people to make their views known with community groups and businesses also taking part.

It prompted 9,000 comments through ward forums, letters and e-mails while 26 petitions were received in support for facilities and services.

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