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‘Our staff should be commended’ says Highland Council leader

By Nicola Sinclair, Local Democracy Reporter

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Council leader Raymond Bremner. Picture: Callum Mackay
Council leader Raymond Bremner. Picture: Callum Mackay

Highland Council leader Raymond Bremner has vowed to protect jobs and communities from budget cuts.

As the gritters battle through the snow and councillors slog through budget meetings, 2023 is looking rather bleak.

This harsh winter will add to the backlog of roads repairs, just as council bosses are being asked to save every penny.

Meanwhile, the social media critics are as relentless as the snow. Council leader Raymond Bremner recently reminded the public that frontline staff are doing the best they can with diminished resources.

Councillor Bremner says it has already been a tough year for council staff.

“The employees coming through this winter period – with all the challenges it’s bringing – are to be absolutely commended,” he said.

One of those challenges is the looming prospect of redundancies. Cllr Bremner says the council will do everything in its power to avoid that. He also wants to protect communities from some of the toughest times in living memory.

Fresh from meetings with Cosla, Cllr Bremner says every council is reeling from the aftermath of the pandemic, the cost of living crisis, inflation and ongoing pay disputes. Many of those councils were already in hot water financially.

Highland had, he says, started to see some green shoots of recovery. But now it has a projected revenue budget gap of £40.9 million (the opposition say it’s closer to £50 million) and a capital programme it can no longer afford.

“There’s no getting away from the fact that it will be a tough year ahead,” says Cllr Bremner, whose SNP group leads the administration in coalition with the independent group.

“However, Cosla has given us a sense of how difficult it is for all local authorities across Scotland. Right now, every council is wondering just how far the cuts will go. We all know there needs to be some clever decision making.”

Difficult decisions are set to be made at Highland Council headquarters. Picture: Gary Anthony
Difficult decisions are set to be made at Highland Council headquarters. Picture: Gary Anthony

The Liberal Democrat opposition last week accused the SNP of not lobbying the Scottish Government hard enough. But Mr Bremner says all councils are under pressure “no matter the colour of their flag” and that reflects a government under pressure too.

Many councils had hoped to gain some financial stability by pushing for multi-year settlements from the Scottish Government. Now, he says, it’s a challenge just to get the full picture for the year ahead.

He admits “any extra would help” but says Highland Council will also look to generate revenue wherever it can, to shore up the budget.

Cllr Bremner refuses to be downbeat, saying the opportunities are there for the taking. He was buoyed by recent news that Opportunity Cromarty Firth has won its bid for freeport status.

Highland can come through this, he says, if we box clever.

To get the ball rolling, the administration asked every council department to identify a fixed percentage of savings. Critics say it’s too simplistic an approach, but Cllr Bremner says it’s a starting point for discussion.

Some services will find the savings more easily than others, but it will at least throw up all the options. From there, it ultimately falls to members to decide what they can bear to lose, and which cuts are a step too far.

Cllr Bremner points out that many council services are statutory, while others are provided at the council’s discretion.

“There’s a difference between what the government requires by statute and what the public wants,” he says. “We can do better at letting people know what those services are. For instance, very few people realise that housing isn’t a statutory service, and nor are play parks or toilets.”

That’s not to say the council will stop running its own housing stock, but it highlights the gulf between what the public expect, and what the council is obliged to deliver.

Cllr Bremner remained tight-lipped about what cuts we can expect to see. The council has already admitted many services will be reduced or lost. And it could shed up to 500 jobs through ‘natural wastage’.

Cllr Bremner says the council will do all it can to avoid compulsory redundancies, but stopped short of ruling them out entirely.

Councillors clearly have difficult decisions to make in the coming weeks. Highland Council sets its capital budget at a meeting on February 1 and its revenue budget on March 2.

The capital programme has been hit hard by a 20-40 per cent increase in costs. This leaves the council having to shelve some of its big ticket projects, with councillors no doubt pushing to protect their own patch.

“The fact is, capital comes at a cost,” says Cllr Bremner. “Capital funding needs to be paid back either through the revenue budget or from reserves. We’re looking at how to sustain levels of investment and sustain levels of service. Right now, it’s difficult to see how we can do that.”

However, Cllr Bremner says their sums are underpinned by a strong sense of ethics.

“We have a moral and social responsibility in terms of the impact our decisions will have on Highland communities,” he says. “If they’re squeezed, that affects people’s disposable income and we already have people on the breadline, living in poverty.

“Whatever we do, it won’t be easy, but we will protect communities as much as we can.”

For the council leader, delivering on that also means hiring the right chief executive. Current chief Donna Manson has resigned, and the council is actively seeking her replacement. What does the council need in a new boss?

Cllr Bremner reiterates that this is a member-led council, so ultimately the chief executive must be a safe pair of hands, capable of delivering the programme set by members. He or she must also be financially astute.

For Cllr Bremner personally, he’d like to hire someone who "gets it". The new boss should understand the unique and diverse nature of Highland, and recognise that one size definitely doesn’t fit all.

In that sense, the picture is not entirely bleak. If there is one cause for optimism, it is the Highland spirit we all saw during lockdown.

“It’s not all doom and gloom,” he says. “The council is ready for the challenge. There are bound to be opportunities that will prevail, and our communities are up for grasping those.”

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