Laird 'does not speak on behalf of SNP group' over scrapping of Highland Council says SNP leader
AN Inverness councillor is launching an online campaign calling for Highland Council to be abolished and for Inverness to have full say over its finances and power over its public services.
The idea has been floated before and some councillors are wary about the costs and consequences of a massive shake-up.
But Richard Laird (SNP) is making it his mission to get Highland Council scrapped and replaced with smaller councils.
He said: “Inverness’s priorities would become the council’s priorities rather than them being balanced against the priorities of the rest of the Highlands.”
However, the SNP Group Leader on the council, Maxine Smith, says she wants to make it clear that Laird – who is her depute – “does not speak with any authority from the group on this matter.”
She says: “This issue has not been discussed within the council's SNP Group.We have therefore no current view on the matter. It may be something that we wish to have on our agenda at a later date, but we would not discuss Inverness in isolation and would give due and equal respect and consideration to the whole of the Highlands."
David Alston, leader of the Liberal Democratic Group in Highland, believes “bigger is better” and says this has been borne out by Europe’s most successful countries.
Under the current system all 80 councillors have a say on what happens in the city.
Doing away with Highland Council would mean only councillors in Inverness could vote on matters affecting the city.
Councillor Laird believes slashing the salaries of senior managers could be the way to fund the shake-up.
Currently, the council’s chief executive Steve Barron is earning £142,926 and a line of senior managers are earning upwards of £70,000.
He foresees the new structure of smaller local authorities requiring fewer high paid directors so significant savings could be made by reducing staffing costs.
He wants the city to collect a Local Income tax and a Land Value Tax and have powers to set up new taxes, levies or rates.
This is something that would require approval by the Scottish Parliament.
And until recently there have been few signals from the government that it would support local authorities to make such complicated and expensive changes to local government.
But a Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy set up by local government organisation Cosla to try to find ways of giving local communities more power found that 50 years of centralisation has not tackled the biggest problems that Scotland faces.
It said there should be far more grass roots control over the cash available for services.
It also suggests power over some other taxes could be moved from central government to councils.
A Commission on Local Tax Reform, set up by the Scottish Government last year is exploring alternatives to the Council Tax.
And in Highland, the council’s new leader Margaret Davidson said “meaningful debate” over the coming months would explore the pros and cons of giving the city and possibly other areas control if their own affairs.
Some members have spoken with on this with trepidation.
But Councillor Laird believes last year’s referendum left Highland tax payers with a healthy appetite for more decisions to be made at local level.
He added: “We don’t have local government in the Highlands. We have regional government. Highland Council is too large an institution covering too large an area. What we need is local democracy and the current structure cannot provide that. But it is obviously important that this is thought through - it has to be done in consultation with local communities.”
However, Councillor Alston believes the Highlands would be weakened by such a change.
He said: “If you look at the history of the Highlands over the last 50 years the great improvements have come from having Highlands and Islands Enterprise and the Highlands and Islands Development Board.
“If you look to Europe and particularly the Nordic countries, what makes them work is they have very strong regional government. Successful countries have both. What I worry about in Richard Laird’s proposal is the removal of a strong voice for the Highlands. It seems to be a great deal can be done at Highland level.”