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Highland Council accused of using pandemic as excuse to keep public in the dark

By Scott Maclennan

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Decisions usually made in public by councillors are now happening in private without anyone allowed to watch.
Decisions usually made in public by councillors are now happening in private without anyone allowed to watch.

HIGHLAND Council has come under fire for using the Covid-19 crisis to shut out the public and make decisions behind closed doors.

The authority was also rapped for hiding from scrutiny from councillors and the media.

Council chiefs blame the lack of appropriate technology, as today’s Highland Licensing Board was set to take place in private, with councillors taking part over Skype.

But, prior to lockdown, the council routinely broadcast meetings over the internet for the public and media and provided video-conferencing so members from far-flung corners of the area could take part.

It also contrasts starkly with Inverness Sheriff Court testing the use of virtual court hearings today.

Frustration with the council has been mounting since the formation of a so-called Gold command structure, where most decisions are taken by around a dozen officials and then scrutinised by about 10 leading councillors, including SNP opposition.

Meetings usually held in public are not being webcast, meaning decisions are going unreported to the public.

A council spokeswoman defended the local authority, saying: “All decisions made to date under the emergency provisions have been appropriate, proportionate and in direct response to the Covid-19 emergency.”

The council’s communications department – comprising a number of individuals paid for with taxpayers’ money – is prioritising coronavirus-related enquiries over anything else and not taking phone calls.

John O’Connell, chief executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said: “These developments from Highland Council should alarm all local taxpayers.

“Of course, all local authority staff have had to adapt rapidly to new circumstances. But the people who pay their salaries should not be kept in the dark about the decisions that will affect them.

“Highland Council must ensure that the public can have better access to their meetings and decisions via technology.”

Inverness councillor Ron MacWilliam, who was suspended from the SNP group after voicing his concerns about the handling of the crisis, said: “We need to intensify scrutiny precisely because of the pandemic, not shut it down.

Councillor Ron MacWilliam claims the role of the local press has been 'shamefully undermined' by Highland Council.
Councillor Ron MacWilliam claims the role of the local press has been 'shamefully undermined' by Highland Council.

“I am deeply worried about the services that will not function and the jobs that will inevitably be lost if Highland Council continues to indulge this culture of chronic secrecy and incompetence.

“The vital role of our local press has also been shamefully undermined by Highland Council. A democracy cannot function without a free press. To exclude the media from the process is downright dangerous.

“The very notion that a multimillion-pound IT contract doesn’t have the capacity to provide tele-conferencing functions is laughable. Everyone and their granny is using Zoom and Skype to meet but the council IT service can’t figure it out?”

Conservative group leader Andrew Jarvie said: “The council cannot be permitted to hide behind the Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse each time it has made decisions behind closed doors or avoided scrutiny of those decisions or shut out members with serious and significant concerns.

“At the very least, a total overhaul of how these powers are invoked is well overdue. But here it appears that a small group voted among themselves to invest all power in themselves, and we only got told after the fact.”

Items on the licensing board agenda include a bid by Eden Court in Inverness to sell alcohol from 11am on Sundays and for its “entire grounds” to be licensed, including car-parking areas, for “maximum flexibility when catering for events”.

The council spokeswoman said chief executive Donna Manson has provided detailed virtual weekly briefings and question-and-answer sessions for all councillors.

“The council’s early focus has been on increasing network capacity so that staff can work from home during lockdown,” she added. “It will not be possible to effect a complete return to normality in terms of council and committee meetings due to the ongoing need for physical distancing.

“However, a range of options are being considered, including video-conferencing. Provision will be made for media to access public committee meetings and for these to be recorded and published. The detail of this is being explored and any arrangements will need to be in line with public health guidelines at the time.”

Meanwhile, today’s Inverness Sheriff Court hearing will enable parties in the case to appear before Sheriff Principal Derek Pyle in a virtual courtroom.

Video links have been used in sheriff courts since the start of the coronavirus outbreak to conduct custody proceedings with the accused appearing from police cells. This will be the first virtual sheriff court, hearing arguments by the parties hosted on the courts’ new video platform.

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