Budget 2017 to 2018

We now have the Scottish Government’s Budget Settlement for 2017-18.

Disappointingly, our worst predictions are realised in that there has been a real cash cut to councils of £350 million. More detail is required but this equates to a significant cut to our core budget. We are seeking clarification as to the extent of this.

Two of the additional income streams announced are ring-fenced for educational attainment and Health and Social Care, which is to be paid through the Health budget. These do not increase our core budget and therefore do not reduce the budget gap that the Council is facing.

The Scottish Government has increased higher council tax bands substantially with the “Council Tax multiplier”. This will mean higher bills for council tax payers in bands E and above.

However, I am relieved to see that, following a motion agreed at The Highland Council, that money raised in Highland should stay in Highland, the Scottish Government are now allowing councils to retain this extra income with no constraints. This will help to reduce our Budget Gap by about £5million, leaving us having to find savings of around £20million.

A cut to our budget on this scale will mean cuts to services and difficult decisions to be made. We will also need to increase our income and this may include increased charges and proposals to raise local council tax.

Consultation last winter showed that the majority of people in the Highlands are prepared to pay a bit more to protect services. The findings of these consultations were reported to council in January 2016.

The findings showed that, in a consultation with our Citizens’ Panel, 61.6% of people are happy to pay 5% more Council tax (29% were happy to pay 10%); and a web survey showed that 63% of people were happy to pay 5% more council tax (39% were happy to pay 10%). A Facebook chat reinforced this view.

We are currently preparing a range of potential draft budget options for discussion with staff, members and communities, prior to decisions in February 2017. We remain open to listening to the views of service users and the staff providing those services, and we are seeking consensus across the chamber in order to make the best, most pragmatic decisions for the people of Highland.