Comhairle leader admits no easy decisions

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Angus Campbell admits there are no easy decisions left to take as the Comhairle prepare to approve a new budget and save almost £10 million in 2016/17.

A series of public consultation meetings, and a recent live chat on Facebook, have helped the Comhairle leader gauge public opinion on the proposed cuts.

Axing all itinerant teachers in island primary schools, moving children in residential care into foster homes, slashing the roads budget and the future of both the Stornoway bus station and Library café are among the list of proposals made.

Up to 84 jobs at the Comhairle are also reported to be on the line upon approval of the final budget – but Mr Campbell insists that is a worst case scenario.

“That figure is the maximum which we may need if we have to go towards cuts and loss of employment,” admitted the

Comhairle leader.

“But it is not definite yet and it is all part of matters we are consulting on. There will be job cuts as part of the efficiency savings we agreed before Christmas. We still have library café staff, bus station which are pending decisions and if they are chosen then there will be employment issues to deal with.

“Unfortunately we have lost significant numbers of staff over the last three or four years but thankfully with voluntary redundancy.”

Last Friday the Comhairle hosted a live debate on social media where any island resident could ask questions regarding any of the proposals directly to Campbell or to the council’s Director of Finance and Corporate Resources, Robert Emmott.

No topics were off limits during the fascinating exercise which Campbell feels is a process the Comhairle will revisit.

“It was really interesting and rewarding to be able to hear people’s views and questions and also to get feedback on the responses we gave,” he continued.

“It is a way of working which we may look at on a regular basis because people on the street have commented how much they enjoyed the format even those who didn’t ask questions themselves.

“The options have narrowed quite a bit but there are still options. I think it is good for us to find out what the whole island chain thinks of certain things rather than spot views from people we happen to bump into.”

Local authorities across Scotland are facing similar struggles to slash their budget which has prompted Moray Council to propose a 20 per cent council tax hike. But a local council tax rise is not an option in the Western Isles says Campbell.

“We have campaigned for the Scottish Government to take away the council tax freeze without putting a penalty onto us,” explained Campbell.

“We could raise about £500,000 ourselves with a five per cent council tax rise. But the vast majority of that would go to Edinburgh as a financial penalty so it would be money out of the pocket’s of Western Isles residents that doesn’t do any good here. This is why we are resisting it.”

Some of the most vocal objections to the proposals has been for the axing of itinerant teachers. There is a compromise that could see the provision continue in primary schools even if the proposal is approved says Campbell.

“There are very few itinerant teachers left and this is a process we started some time ago,” he began.

“What we are saying is we will still deliver the services in terms of art, music and PE. It might be done with class teachers but we also propose to take the itinerant teachers into the main system as supply teachers.

“Then if they are in schools and doing non-contract time they can do additional work on their specialist subjects at these times.

“But there are whole areas of the Western Isles which already don’t get itinerant teachers.”

Similar compromises have been floated regarding the Stornoway bus station and Stornoway Library café.

He said: “We could take the manned element of it away and leave the bus station open for shelter. I wouldn’t want to see a place people can’t sit and wait for a bus. Perhaps we could provide more timetable information to substitute what would be given by the staff.

“These are sort of compromises. The same for the library café where we could either look at the pricing structure, put the café out as a franchise to someone to run or perhaps look at vending machine options. We have to be sure we save enough money to make the budget.”

The Comhairle are now working to set a legal budget in time for February 17 during a process in which the leader pledges to carefully consider all the consultation views while ensuring the final budget ‘remains balanced.’

Campbell added: “It is getting more difficult. We have taken £15m out of our budget in the last few years already in money terms before even taking inflation into consideration. The easy answers just aren’t there any more. It is harder to find where to go.”