Highland Council Clamp Down On Spending In The Face Of Potential Deficit Position
2nd October 2020
Councillors have agreed a cautious and prudent approach to the Highland Council's Revenue Budget for 2020/21.
Depute Leader Cllr Alasdair Christie said: "We know how hard these past 6 months have been for individuals, groups, schools, care providers and businesses. I would like to take this opportunity to sincerely thank everyone for their contributions to helping our area. We need to be helping each other as much as we can to tackle any second wave and to help the Highland's Recovery.
"Our decisions today highlight the ever-increasing uncertainty facing the Council in the current climate, with short- and medium-term adverse impacts on the Council's financial position.
"The report presented before us today details evidence of significant improvements the Council has made in managing its financial challenges during the coronavirus pandemic through prudence, tighter budget controls and Members' scrutiny."
Before potential additional government funding is applied, an estimated gap of £22.709m is now forecast for the 2020/21 revenue budget. It was previously anticipated that additional funding from government would help bring this to a near-balanced position, however Members were informed of the significant risks identified regarding two factors. Formal confirmation is yet to be received from Scottish Government regarding the income recompense scheme funds and for the Council’s request for flexibility around the use of council tax income from second homes. These two factors, pending confirmation, may increase the current year budget gap from a potential near-balanced position to a deficit of around £11.254m.
To offset this forecast increase in the Council’s budget gap, Members agreed to set aside the sum of £10.9m from the Council’s General Fund non-earmarked reserves.
Members agreed to continue lobbying both UK and Scottish Governments for additional funding. Members also approved the release of £3m Crown Estate Investment Funds; and £2.293m of roads investment funding will also be released so that this work can now begin.
Cllr Christie said: "This investment in the Council’s infrastructure will be particularly important in enabling employment and assisting economic recovery across the Highlands."
Until greater certainty is reached on the budget position, any further budget spending will continue to be restricted to essential spending only.
The report stated: “At the time of a national pandemic our communities and staff have demonstrated outstanding resilience and capacity to work together and support our drive to be a sustainable Council; it is important that we go forward with confidence in having a range of options to deliver a sustainable Council and communicate with confidence to our Highland communities the capacity to deliver services, provide support and take care of the most vulnerable with our partners all within the financial capabilities open to us as an organisation."
A £33.571m programme of essential capital projects was also given approval by Members to initially progress across the current financial year (£20.363m) and future years (£13.208m). Projects include flood schemes (Drumnadrochit and Conon Bridge); investments in waste and recycling facilities; and a range of essential works in schools and council properties.
An amendment by Cllr Maxine Smith and seconded by Cllr Pauline Munro was agreed by the Council to allow Wards with unspent Covid money, especially the deprived areas to spend their money on projects to assist children and adults post Covid, such as contributing to playpark equipment. Members also agreed to reconsider the deferment of the £100,000 Playpark Fund and that a report would be brought back to a future meeting of the Council on this matter.
Budget update reports will continue to be provided to all meetings of The Highland Council.
At the Caithness Area Committee on 22 October 2020 members unanimously confirmed their full support to the business case for Wick John O'Groats Airport to receive Public Service Obligation (PSO) status by putting forward a motion and reinforcing their commitment to working with stakeholders and partners to deliver this as a matter of urgency. The motion lodged recognises the fundamental strategic importance of Wick John O’Groats Airport to the economy of the region, and the energy, business and tourism sectors in particular.
Members of the Caithness Committee have identified fuel poverty as their number one concern and are pleased to announce that the member-led capital housing budget has increased to 10% as they welcome £2,253,000 of investment which will be used to carry out improvements to the housing stock across the county. A specific priority of the capital programme is improving heating and make homes more energy efficient, with over £1,300,000 of budget approved to replace the oldest and most inefficient heating systems with a further £150,000 for one-off heating replacements.
Highland Council Trading Standards supports FASathon - the Friends Against Scams marathon day Highland Council Trading Standards is encouraging Highland residents to take part in ‘FASathon', the Friends Against Scams marathon day, on 21st October 2020. The aim of the FASathon campaign is to get as many people as possible to complete the free Friends Against Scams online awareness session to learn about the different types of scams and how to protect yourself and others against scams.
By intervening, Local Government has reduced the worst impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic for the most vulnerable in our communities, COSLA said today (Wednesday). COSLA also said that is why their Blueprint outlines the lead role of Local Government in securing a fair and inclusive recovery with a strong focus on human rights, tackling poverty and addressing inequalities.
In advance of the 2021 tourism season, Members of The Highland Council's Tourism Committee have agreed that the local authority will continue to work and engage with partners, national agencies and local communities to meet the challenges and opportunities that exist in the region for motorhomes and wild camping tourism. Councillor Maxine Smith, Tourism Committee Chair said: "While coronavirus and the increased demand for staycations in the UK have played a large part in the massive increase in demands placed on the Highlands of Scotland from across the UK, the evidence does show that motorhome ownership and hire has been increasing over recent years.
The Highland Council has published new information on the Coronavirus Covid-19 button on the front page of its website on how people can access the new Covid-19 Self-Isolation Support Grant. https://www.highland.gov.uk/coronavirus Funded by the Scottish Government, the new grant is available for individuals who are asked to self-isolate by the NHS Test and Protect Service, in receipt of low-income benefits and who will lose income as they are unable to work from home.
Highland Council is currently looking at options to secure the future of the lifeline ferry service at Corran Ferry, Lochaber. The local authority is responsible for operating the Corran Ferry service, which is the busiest single vessel route in Scotland.
The Highland Council would like to thank householders who have purchased a Garden Waste Collection Service permit for 2020/21. The current permit started on the 1st of September and will run until the 31st of August 2021, with collections continuing until the end of November.
The Highland Council is reminding the public that although their offices and buildings remain closed to the public a full range of support and information is still available. Access into all service point buildings continues to be currently restricted for people to complete birth registrations and other high priority registrations by appointment only, and following all current social distancing and hygiene guidance.
Additional spending powers and funding for councils. A package of financial flexibilities and extra funding for councils which could be worth up to £750 million has been agreed by the Scottish Government in partnership with COSLA.