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Highland Council leader reveals up £60 million could found for roads and infrastructure

By Scott Maclennan

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The public largely want to see investment to repair roads like this one in Wick.
The public largely want to see investment to repair roads like this one in Wick.

Highland Council has revealed that there is a possibility of more roads investment if the local authority is willing to take on additional £1 million a year in loan changes – which it says could release up to £60 million in funding.

Earlier this week we exclusively revealed the council’s spending and cuts plans for its £602 million budget, highlighting cuts, the risk to jobs and the hike in charges for things like funerals, school meals, parking and garden waste.

But there was no mention of any increase on the £8 million already agreed in the capital review back in September so without any additional cash that is all that would be available for the year for the entire region.

The most recently reported “steady state” – the amount needed to keep the roads in the current condition – is £25.1 million, critics believe the true figure if reviewed would be much higher.

Last year, just over £20 million was invested in Highland roads so it was still some way off the steady state leading to a decline in road condition despite a widespread public outcry over potholes.

Now the council has confirmed that it is considering how to access more infrastructure funding and one way is that “up to £60 million of capital can be released with an additional £1 million per annum of investment in loan charge budgets over three years.”

That, the council believes, “would significantly boost the council’s opportunity to invest in important capital projects such as roads and infrastructure.”

It claims that “over £100 million of investment will be possible if budget proposals are agreed at Highland Council’s budget setting meeting on 29 February.”

The local authority outlined how budget saving proposals of £54 million are “underpinned by the need to invest in change to deliver recurring and sustainable cost reduction, income generation, redesign and efficiency savings.”

The budget is being considered over three years leaving a £113 million shortfall – over the 2024/25 financial year the budget gap is £65 million so trying to balance the legal obligation to set a balanced budget and invest in services is difficult.

In an indication of how much more expensive it is for the local authority to operate it has “an additional £37 million has been earmarked to meet inflationary and other cost pressures.”

The council wants to use £32.3 million of its reserves to support and invest in change and redesign including £20 million to support adult social care by delivering cost improvements and redesign.

It is considered a spend to save that it is claimed will result in £12.6 million saving.

A further £1.2 million has also been set aside from Reserves to drive build community capacity in the third sector and community groups in order to support training, mentoring and specialist support in areas such as health and social care.

And £6 million could go to property maintenance with £2 million a year funding over three years, met from reserves to service more than 3000 assets including the “school estate and depots” which “are in urgent need of repairs.”

Leader of the Council Raymond Bremner added: “We have recently had to make difficult decisions on our capital programme due to the difficult financial context we find ourselves in.

“An additional £60m, while not an answer to everything, would go some way towards us being able to invest in important capital projects, while not putting undue pressure on our Reserves.”

Convener Bill Lobban said: “Investment is fundamental to supporting the necessary transformation in order to redesign our services and maximise our income generation and release longer term savings. Funding change over a three year period allows substantial changes to take place and be sustainable.”

The budget paper sets out the reserves position for consideration by members on 29 February.

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