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Schools are victims of Highland Council cash crisis


By Scott Maclennan


A HARD-HITTING audit has raised concerns about Highland Council’s ability to meet a range of financial challenges.

The report, prepared by the Accounts Commission for Audit Scotland, also flags up falling standards across council services, particularly education.

And it states: “We are concerned in particular that the council is not demonstrating that it is financially sustainable.”

The council is seeking to close a budget gap of up to £77.3 million by 2023.

The report found:

  • The council has struggled to achieve agreed financial savings, resulting in the care and learning service consistently overspending
  • Performance against national indicators has deteriorated over a five-year period, with poor performance in priority areas including education
  • The council cannot demonstrate that it is achieving best value as its approach to self-evaluation and improvement has been inconsistent
  • The council’s pace of change to meet challenges has been inconsistent.

More positively, the report acknowledges the council demonstrates generally good partnership working, with signs of “improved working” with the third sector.

It also highlights a number of recent changes made at the council, including establishing “more robust financial and governance controls”.

However, along with a revision of the council’s senior management structure following the arrival of chief executive Donna Manson in 2018, it is felt it is too early to judge the real impact these will have.

Andrew Burns, a member of the Accounts Commission, said: “This report makes clear the very challenging financial position faced by the council and changes to the way services are delivered are vital.

“It is reassuring that change is now happening more quickly and it is really important that this momentum is maintained.

“It will, however, be very challenging for the council to meet all of its commitments and priorities.

“Given the urgent nature of the issues raised in our report, the Accounts Commission will maintain a close interest in the progress made by Highland Council.”

The local authority is set to discuss the findings of the report on March 5, but it was welcomed by council leader Margaret Davidson yesterday.

“Meaningful scrutiny of performance is key and the changes we have put in place in recent months will enable the council to do this more effectively,” she said.

“A new leadership team and organisational structure will help to increase senior officer engagement and visibility across the region, driving performance and community empowerment.”

Councillor Andrew Jarvie, leader of the Conservative group within Highland Council, said the report highlighted a number of areas that were already of concern to him.

“This speaks to the number one frustration I have with the council – that any cuts are not rationalised, they are just bludgeoned into the system until there is nothing left,” he said.

“There is huge waste in the council in cash and staff time.”

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