Gazette Letters - Ball is in our court

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Sir, – The document ‘Comhairle Corporate Strategy 2017-2021’ is out for public consultation, with responses invited by November 15.

It is well presented, easily readable, and should be considered as compulsory reading by all citizens living here and relying on our public services, now, or into the future.

Access is via the Comhairle website: HERE

Main subject headings are listed as “social and economic context”, “strategic planning framework”, “strategic priorities”, and “monitoring, reporting and review”.

There is an “Introduction” by Comhairle leader Councillor Roddie MacKay and chief officer Malcolm Burr.

This is realistic, yet positive, in outlook, despite the many challenges being faced, not least of which are the continuing cuts to revenue budget, anticipated as being upwards of £12m over the next two financial years, 2018-20 (on top of upwards of £30m of cuts since 2009).

The UK Chancellor sets his budget on November22. This will trigger political debate at Holyrood, with much being said at present about increasing rates of income tax to mitigate any detriment to key public services, and abolishing the public sector pay freeze.

The SNP operates as a minority administration in government in Scotland and depends on support from other parties to get a budget approved. This will be no mean feat, and an SNP consultation paper is expected soon.

So, I don’t expect the 32 local authorities to have knowledge of a budget until late December/early New Year, with each local authority budget setting to be completed and approved by the Scottish Government within a matter of weeks.

This will provide only limited time for public consultation, hence the importance of immediate consideration of this Comhairle document, despite the present financial uncertainty.

The Comhairle has a total revenue budget this year of £107m, with 81 per cent contributed by the Scottish Government.

Cllr Donald Crichton has taken an initiative by calling a ward meeting of all community council representatives in his area, with the director of finance and other councillors attending.

I think this should be replicated across our island communities.

I would further add that all five Locality Planning Groups, Health and Social Care should do likewise.

Whilst certain essential services may have a degree of protection, and Health and Social Care falls into this category, eligibility criteria for access to key services will be open to review and all stakeholders should have knowledge of

this.

A review of charges for certain services will also be on the agenda (eg, care at home and residential accommodation charges).

Furthermore, new legislation, such as The Carers’ (Scotland) Act, 2016, is due for implementation in April, and this enactment will have considerable resource needs.

The democratic imperative, and the concept of “transformational change” and “community empowerment”, as emphasised in this Comhairle document, is of utmost importance, and must be given earnest consideration.

Community planning and empowerment only becomes meaningful by and through the process of engagement.

How do we in our respective communities, however remote and isolated, square the circle of significant budget cuts with the fundamental need to maintain our key statutory services on which we alln depend?

This is the ubiquitous challenge we all face, and the Comhairle deserves credit for placing these policy matters before us: both short (immediate) and longer term planning. The management of change can also of course present opportunities for doing things differently.

Partnerships with the voluntary and third sector agencies in the delivery of services, are being welcomed by the Comhairle, and should be promoted.

Metaphorically, the ball is at present in our court, and to continue with this metaphor, should not be kicked into touch!

Let’s energise our communities, debate the service issues and choices, and make our voices heard by our elected members and Comhairle corporate management team, before it’s too late.

Yours, etc.,

Andrew Walker

Benbecula