Article appeared in Highland press, January 2023
I have been a Highland Councillor for eight months now and am really enjoying it, learning about issues at schools, roads, the local economy and care sector, amongst many other subjects. I really feel the council is operationally well run, albeit there are major issues that need to be addressed.
The Highland Council is a big beast of an organisation. It looks after an area the size of Belgium, has 10,000 staff and a budget of £650 million. It has borrowing of £1.1 billion and a long list of capital projects that need doing urgently, from replacing the Corran Ferry, a waste management facility in Inverness and new schools.
What has been shocking to me, is the state of Council finances. 80% of funding comes from the Scottish Government, who are heaping on more and more statutory responsibilities while reducing the funding available. According to the Scottish Parliament Information Centre, per capita funding for Councils has fallen by 16% since 2009. And last summer Kate Forbes announced that there would be a freeze in council funding for the next three years. Assuming 10% inflation, this is an effective cut in funding of 30%. These are not Westminster driven cuts, Scotland spend over £120 for every £100 spent in England on public services - this is about moving the budget from the regions to Holyrood.
Our SNP led Scottish Government increasingly wish to command and control. More and more responsibilities are being being run from the South - the Police and Fire Service have been centralised already, neither move can be considered a success. And now the plans for a National Care Service (NCS) would remove a third of Councils Expenditure and 10,000 council staff across Scotland. CoSLA, the umbrella organisation for councils, believes the NCS will cost £1.5 billion to create. This money "could be spent on improving service delivery and meeting unmet need."
Through CoSLA all the council leaders expressed "extreme disappointment" and said "It will be the people of Scotland and our communities who suffer as a result."
The former MSP Andy Wightman noted in the Policy Memorandum to the European Charter of Local Self Government Bill: "over the past century the status, powers and freedoms of local government have been slowly eroded and marginalised. Governments of all persuasions have tended to concentrate more executive and fiscal power to the centre."
I would like to see a 180 degree reversal of this centralisation policy. Head teachers being given far more power over the curriculum, community councils taking over playgrounds, public toilets, gardens and more. There are fewer medics in the NHS than admin staff, a vast bureaucracy that would surely benefit from being more locally managed.
We desperately need elected Mayors or Provosts - readers, do you know who your ‘civic head’ is? Every town in France has an executive Mayor: they walk the street, know everyone and have considerable power. If anyone has a problem, the Mayor is their port of call.
Reform Scotland, the independent think tank writes, "By the 2027 local authority elections, we should be voting for a directly elected mayor in every local authority across Scotland. We should be given the chance to elect someone to take the local message to the national government, rather than bringing the national government’s message back to local people."
The SNP used to call for reform of domestic and business taxes. Again this should be raised and spent as locally as possible.
Us Liberal Democrats strongly believe that command, control and funding should be given back to the locals who know the issues that matter most.
Highlands Liberal Democrat Councillor and Westminster Candidate