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Councillors' fury: 'This proposal reeks' as Highland Council is set to ask elected members to hand over power to unelected officials in an 11th hour move due to coronavirus

By Scott Maclennan

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Highland Council Headquarters on Glenurquhart Road.
Highland Council Headquarters on Glenurquhart Road.

Highland councillors will be asked to agree to a major transfer of power from elected representatives to officers today as part of the response to the "deteriorating" Covid situation in an 11th hour change to the agenda of a delayed full council meeting.

The move, proposed by council leader Margaret Davidson and the leader of the SNP opposition Raymond Bremner, has the potential to spark uproar from councillors wary of a power grab by officers.

The Courier can exclusively reveal that, though official papers have not been made public yet, the proposals would see elected councillors deprived of decision-making power in “an emergency situation”.

Many members have bad memories of how emergency powers were used during the first lockdown, which sparked bitterness, mistrust and division that simmers to this day and has clouded a number of meetings.

Already two prominent Inverness councillors – Andrew Jarvie and Ron MacWilliam – have slammed the plans with both resorting to the same description: "secretive."

Justifying the move, an email was sent out asking members to "acknowledge that the whole of the country is in a deteriorating position" as the reason for the radical changes in governance.

That could place councillors in the uncomfortable position of having to formally agree potentially controversial decisions after they are made, though they would be provided with weekly briefings and decisions would be published on the council’s website “in advance of being taken to council”.

During the first lockdown a small group of officers formed the so-called Gold Group and acted without elected oversight for around a month until a similarly small group of councillors was formed to provide a modicum of scrutiny.

It is still felt by some, that this situation contributed to the Paul Senior situation, which saw the council shell out almost £1000 a day for an interim education boss.

Responding to the proposals, Conservative group leader Cllr Jarvie said: “Once more, this council is shamefully using Covid as a smokescreen to justify secrecy and evade democracy and openness.

“We hear time and time again from this out-of-touch council that their door is always open. It’s only open to let out the smoke to screen their actions. But it’s much worse than that, with implications which will affect us all.

“Their proposal does not mention emergency powers, nor does it even appear to be written by them. But the line ‘which will be of sufficient importance to justify member notification’ is straight from the Emergency Plan. So secretive that councillors don’t clearly know what they are agreeing to.

“I spoke last evening with other council leaders and had a response from all but a few Tory group leaders in Scotland. Their interpretation of this was the same as mine – they were appalled at how anyone could attempt this, as they see no grounds or decisions on the horizon which would justify this. Only one other council’s officers are considering this.

“The Highland Council will, again, stand out nationally for all the wrong reasons."

Cllr MacWillian said: “This proposal reeks. The response by council leaders to lockdown in March 2020 was weak and chaotic, yet relentlessly self-congratulatory.

"Their secretive actions made a frightening situation worse and they’re up to old tricks with what appears to be a fresh attempt to curtail democratic function.

"Decision-making on major items is already heavily centred in the hands of a select few and given that for the past month the council leader has been proudly lobbying to relax Covid restrictions over the festive season, the mind boggles as to the nonsense spoken when they operate unchallenged in private.

"If they introduce measures that even remotely resemble the same shambolic command structure in place last year, our prized council services which staff are working so hard to deliver will inevitably suffer.”

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