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Conservative MSP speaks out over Highland Council's financial problems

By Gordon Calder

A NORTH MSP says he is disappointed that innovative solutions to Highland Council's financial problems have not been considered.

Edward Mountain, a Conservative MSP for the Highlands and Islands, spoke out following criticism from Audit Scotland over the local authority's poor service performance and financial sustainability.

The report for the Accounts Commission highlighted the lack of progress made since the previous audit in 2010.

Education was singled out for poor service performance. With up to £77 million savings to be found over the next two years, Audit Scotland made it clear that difficult decisions lie ahead for the local authority.

Edward Mountain MSP. Picture: Andrew Cowan / Scottish Parliament
Edward Mountain MSP. Picture: Andrew Cowan / Scottish Parliament

Mr Mountain said: "I know that Highland Conservative councillors have worked hard in suggesting improvements for the budgeting process but they have been rebuffed by the administration because they wish to follow established procedures. It is clear that these are not working and we need more stringent financial controls.

"I am disappointed that some of the Conservative group’s innovative suggestions to improve the financial position have not been considered fully by the current administration.

"If Highland Council is going to address the financial problem properly they need to talk with everyone and they also need to scrutinise budgets throughout the year, not just at the end of the year."

The report, which looked at the years from 2010 to 2019, flagged up poor service delivery standards and underlined the unsustainable financial performance.

The council’s record in making cuts was considered "poor" and the current pace of change is too slow to deliver £77 million in savings by 2023 if it is to "ensure it can live within its financial means".

Ensuring good governance – the effective management of resources to deliver the best possible outcomes for the public – could not be demonstrated by the council.

Andrew Burns, a member of the Accounts Commission, acknowledged that though there were some positives there were significant failings.

"If the council cannot make its savings then it is simply not sustainable," he said. "The Accounts Commission is concerned. The council has not delivered a balanced budget without the use of its reserves for some time.

"If that continues the reserves will be wiped out and that is why we have asked Audit Scotland to keep a close eye on what happens at Highland Council over the next 12, 24 and 36 months."

The positives included the Highland Youth Parliament, which was set up in 2001 to give young people across the region a voice on council matters.

High Life Highland, which runs leisure centres, swimming pools and libraries on behalf of the local authority, brought improvements to services and savings in some areas, it was stated.

Councillor Margaret Davidson, leader of Highland Council, said the report recognised the authority's "clear strategic vision".

She said: "The council continues to operate in a very challenging environment and we recognise the effort and investment needed to deliver on our best value duty and implement the audit recommendations."

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