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Highland Council turns to the public to help fight £67m budget deficit

Highland Council has warned that its reserves are at “the lowest levels in recent history” and has asked for help from the public on how to plug a budget deficit of £66.7m over the next three years.

The local authority has asked for feedback from staff, trade unions, councillors and the public, seeking ideas on how to save money as the council tries to “reshape our priorities.”

The exact amount of the budget gap won’t be known until mid-December after the Scottish Government’s budget and grant settlement figures, but Highland Council says it is hopeful it will receive additional money.

The budget leader, Cllr Alister Mackinnon, said: “Our reserves however are at the lowest levels in recent history and we are taking action to protect these reserves from reducing any further.

“We were estimating a £5m overspend in Q1 – but our officers have been working extremely hard to reduce this and we are now predicting a more positive out-turn with an overspend of £2.5m.

“This is not ideal, but moving in the right direction. We do however have the risk of the cost of another harsh winter ahead of us.”

Highland Council has already been forced into £102.1m savings since 2013-14 and raised taxes by 3% in each of the last two years in order to balance its budget.

Mackinnon said: “We have managed to do this without compulsory redundancies and at the same time have still invested in important projects across the Highlands – such as new schools, roads and free Wi-Fi.

“There will be very hard decisions to make as we plan for a reduced budget over the next three years and it is vital that we involve the public, our staff and all members in the choices we make.”

People will be able to submit feedback and ideas through a survey during the next month, and the council has released a YouTube video, leaflet and other material hoping to encourage responses.

Highland Council serves a third of the land area of Scotland and geographically is the largest local authority in the UK.

It was reported in August by Audit Scotland that the council’s reserves were “well below minimum standards” at around £8m with plans to reduce non-essential spending in place.

Highland Council is the just one of many Scottish councils facing budget deficits, despite an uplift of £900m over three years in funds given to Scotland.

The situation in England is no different, with several councils looking at severe service and job cuts to balance their books.

 Image credit - Ubermenschmatt

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