A three percent Council Tax rise and job losses are among some of the measures being considered as Highland Council seeks to balance its books.
The Council’s budget gap for 2017/18, the difference between required expenditure and income, is £20.344m. Budget proposals include increasing the rates to generate additional income of £3.510m. Together with savings agreed by Council in December 2014 and February 2016, a budget gap of £10.410m remains.
The Administration Budget Group have been working with officers to develop new proposals to bridge the remaining budget gap.
An estimated 66.6 Full Time Equivalent (FTE) posts will be deleted in order to deliver these proposals along with 55.2 FTE posts associated with the savings from previous years.
Budget Leader Cllr Bill Fernie said: “We have looked carefully at all the savings and have done our best to reduce savings where we can to protect the most vulnerable people in our communities. This means that we can significantly reduce the savings which were originally proposed for Childcare and Early Learning. Also, some of the cuts to the £4 million funding which goes to third sector groups, will now not be taken. We have also significantly reduced the planned cut to adult services.
“£20 million is still a huge amount to take out of our budget, but we are trying our best to mitigate the impact of these savings on communities and on our staff.
“The level of staffing reductions required is considerably lower than the amount anticipated during the earlier stages of the budget process. This is due to the reduced budget gap as a result of changes in the grant funding settlement and we have sought to minimise the impact on staffing by focusing the savings proposals on areas of non-pay and income budgets.
“Of the posts affected by our final savings proposals, a significant number are already vacant. Many of the posts relating to savings approved in prior years have already been deleted.
“Significant consultation has taken place with Trade Unions and a workforce management strategy including the use of recruitment controls and the reduced use of agency staff has been introduced in order to identify opportunities for the redeployment of staff at risk and to reduce the need for compulsory redundancies.”
Cllr Fernie went on to say: “The Council has made significant progress in the last year on Service Redesign, with final reports due to be reported to Council in March. This work will form a key element of the work required for the Council to prioritise service delivery for the future."
The budget proposals developed have been informed by a range of information including previous budget consultation exercises, information gathered through the re-design process including engagement with staff and trade unions, public engagement and engagement with partner organisations.
A survey to the Citizens’ Panel was undertaken in December which focused on areas associated with the service Re-design reviews. These focused on waste, transport, street lighting, street cleaning and public toilets. The findings from this have assisted in developing these reviews and some associated budget proposals for 2017/18, with others being developed for future years. The report will be available on the Council’s website.
In January, a public engagement exercise was launched using a Budget Simulator. This approach, used by a number of Local Authorities in recent years, enabled the public to try and balance the Council’s budget by making reductions in some areas of service whilst considering the potential consequences of any change. The purpose of this engagement exercise was not to consult on specific budget proposals, but to consider the budget overall and to promote awareness of the challenges facing the Council and consequences of service reductions, whilst providing the Council with a broad understanding of respondents’ priorities.
1,026 people submitted a budget over the two and a half week period that the tool was available for. The average budget produced overall, identified reductions in spend across all areas. Around 20% of those submitting a budget also left comments. These were wide ranging in nature and included suggestions for additional income generation, for efficiencies and for providing services differently. A number of comments were received on the simulator itself. In the main these were very positive, reflecting how difficult the challenge was but welcoming the opportunity to contribute. A summary report of the findings will be made available on the Council’s website.