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Highland Council looks to hike cost of funerals and school meals and motorhome charging

By Scott Maclennan

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School meals could go up by 4.6 per cent if councillors agree to budget proposals.
School meals could go up by 4.6 per cent if councillors agree to budget proposals.

The proposed Highland Council budget for the upcoming financial year will put some interesting proposals to members for consideration on February 29 like creating a bus company and a voluntary scheme for campervan payments.

Yesterday, we revealed the local authority had a £602 million budget, had to plug a £65 million shortfall and detailed some of the cuts to social care and investment back in as well as the risk of potential job losses and the Council Tax freeze.

Earlier today the council issued a statement clarifying its intentions and its strategy to close its massive estimated shortfall over three years of £113 million with almost half of that falling in the upcoming financial year.

Some of the plans will be welcomed, others may well not be so warmly received, so here we take a look at some of the more creative suggestions contained in the budget.

The full council will meet on February 29 to determine the budget.

Sustainable Bus Transport Model

Perhaps one of the strongest and best proposals to emerge from Highland Council in years. Buses, particularly for the school run have been a perennial issue in the north and if the council can emulate Lothian Buses which is ultimately held by Edinburgh City Council then this one could take off – but it is not likely to be quick.

What the council says: “Highland areas suffer from on-going market failure in the area of bus transport. Therefore, options are being developed to provide bus transportation for Highland areas, so as to enable a more sustainable transport model.”

What it would do: “We would seek to purchase enough rolling stock and recruit drivers. We may also review depot provision and are assessing potential capital costs. However, since costs of transport procurement have spiralled in recent years, there is a clear cost benefit in moving to a public owned model for Highland.”

Value: TBD

Campervan and motorhomes voluntary passport

So this is a more left-field suggestion that would entail visitors to the Highland voluntarily paying £40 a year as a contribution towards the upkeep of roads in the region. Budget setters at the council believe that this could raise as much as £1.5 million a year, which seems optimistic given that anyone who purchases a “passport” essentially only gets to show a “signal of support for the Highlands an intent to contribute.”

What the council says: “Develop a voluntary passport scheme charge so tourists can contribute to the maintenance of roads and other amenities - and create funds to enhance existing campsite service provision and provide more council-owned sites.”

What it would do: “Research estimates 200,000 motor-ho are seen annually in the Highlands. A voluntary scheme at £40 per annum could generate over £1m as a token of tourists' support for the Highlands. It is anticipated the passport could be a bumper sticker. Review existing charging policies including overnight parking.”

Value: £1.5 million

Increasing Fees and Charges

So this could prove to be dramatically unpopular – though perhaps it is a necessary step – as it involves highly sensitive issues: bereavement services and school meals. The council is looking at a 4.6 per cent increase which would necessarily hit those least likely to be able to afford any additional cost most and worst.

What the council says: “To increase all fees and charges that are determined by Highland Council. Non exhaustive indicative examples include, for 2024/25, the person-centred services (bereavement services, school meals) rising by 4.6%, the CPI inflation rate (12 month-period ending Oct 23), with the others by CPI+ 3% with some exceptions that are detailed as standalone savings. (e.g. property leases) Indicative sums are shown for 25/26 & 26/27, with intention that inflation at end of October of the preceding year will inform annual savings.”

What it would do: “This is a simple uplift to fees and charges currently levied. It will be managed through existing arrangements.”

Value: £4.285 million

Area Discretionary Budgets

Another proposal that could unsettle those passionate about localising the council’s investment because it basically removes huge amounts of cash from local area committees and puts it back in the coffers.

What the council says: “The Council holds funding which is disbursed at a local level, under two headings: Coastal Communities Funding and Ward Discretionary Budgets. The saving relates to a top-slice reduction from both budgets, equivalent to 10% across each fund.”

What it would do: “This would be a reduction in both budgets. Existing crown estates funding covered by this saving is approximately £2 million per annum and ward discretionary budgets are £0.336m. The saving will reduce both by 10%.”

Value: £234,000

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