THE new area committee for Caithness and Sutherland could become “an embarrassment and little more than a talking shop”, according to local councillor Willie Mackay.
But two of his colleagues – Alex MacLeod and John Rosie – disagreed and claimed the new body has an important role to play and will give the area local democracy. “It is a step in the right direction,” said Mr Rosie.
Mr Mackay, an independent Landward Caithness councillor, is “very disappointed” by the agenda for the first committee meeting which takes place at Drummuie, Golspie, on Monday.
“It is a bit light and sends out a poor signal. Most of the items are for noting or acknowledging and discussing things that we already know about such as the Wick schools project, the new Wick council building and winter maintenance,” Mr Mackay told the John O’Groat Journal.
“The aim was to bring back powers to the areas but there is no sign of that whatsoever judging by the agenda for the first meeting. We clearly have to give it a chance but if there is no improvement in the future it could become an embarrassment and little more than a talking shop.”
Mr Mackay wants real powers devolved from Inverness and the 16-member committee to have “a robust role”. “If that does not happen they can forget it,” he argued.
“Local people are expecting powers to come back to Caithness and will be disappointed if there is no decision-making in this area and the committee just notes, acknowledges and rubber-stamps decisions already made in Inverness,” said the landward councillor.
He claimed the revamped area committee could address the democratic deficit in local government but will not do that unless some power is transferred from headquarters in Inverness.
Mr Mackay would like to see the licensing committee, the licensing board and planning being devolved for a start with more powers coming north in future.
He also took issue with the payment of £8000 the newly-elected area committee leader will receive for chairing four meetings a year. The payment is in addition to the £16,234 a councillor receives as basic salary.
“That is £24,000 a year and is totally embarrassing. The committee leader will be getting £2000 for sitting in the chair and doing what? I cannot see how that can be justified unless there is something bigger coming in that we do not know about,” said Mr Mackay, who stressed his criticism is no reflection on the person who gets the role.
Thurso councillor Mr Rosie argued the new area committee has “a vital role” to play and will give the far north more powers.
“People voted for this at the election and are entitled to get it. It is our only hope for local government in the far north, otherwise we will have regional government,” he told the Groat.
Mr Rosie stressed that millions of pounds are being invested in education in Caithness and claimed the committee can play a key part in the plans for renewable energy in the Pentland Firth.
He also identified the Berriedale Braes as another issue and said that section of the A9 “is not fit for purpose”.
Mr Rosie maintained the committee could also fight for other issues, including improvements at Wick Airport.
“I think the committee will have a lot of power that was not available before but we will have to take it a bit at a time,” he added.
Landward Caithness councillor Mr MacLeod also disagreed with Mr Mackay and said the committee will have teeth and “use them to move Caithness forward”.
“This is an incredibly exciting time for local democracy. We have returned power to the people, where it belongs, and we have done so in a swift and efficient manner.
“This new committee will deal with issues of local importance to Caithness. Our agenda is packed with many pressing local issues and I’m looking forward to getting stuck into the important work ahead,” he said.
“This committee will be a hugely positive force for good in the county. I hope all my Caithness colleagues will work together to make the most of the opportunities ahead.”