The first round of ‘community conversations’ organised by the Comhairle in a bid to ‘find new ways to protect public services’, and as part of its ‘service redesign’ process, got underway this week with events in Barra and Back.
Hosted by Comhairle senior officers and local councillors, the events opened with a series of presentations outlining the authority’s budget projections for the next four years.
In the period, the Comhairle is facing the challenge of finding £10m of savings as a result of declining Government finance, cost inflation and growing demand for services, especially in terms of care services for an ageing local population.
At the Back event on Monday night the future rounds of the ‘community conversation’ process were outlined and the meeting was described by a Comhairle senior officer as ‘the start of a journey’.
The Comhairle’s Director of Education and Children’s Services, Bernard Chisholm stated: “We face difficult financial challenges, and we are trying to be innovative, looking at a new partnership with communities – a participative, democratic approach to services, and how services will be delivered.”
Robert Emmott, the Comahirle’s finance director, warned of the additional challenge the Comhairle’s finances could face with projections of a steep rise in inflation in the post-Brexit period.
BOOKLET DETAILING SERVICES FOR DISCUSSION
After the initial presentations, attendees were divided into groups based on their home village and issued with a booklet detailing individual services for discussion, with the introduction: ‘This process of community engagement and empowerment is aimed at identifying those issues that are important to local communities, in addition to investigating ways that could reduce the demand for some services, identify other services that could be more efficiently provided by communities, and agree which services could be changed.’
Under each proposal community members were invited to tick boxes and make notes, defining a ‘Community Rating of Proposal’ with the option to respond as ‘Positive’, ‘Needs further discussion’ or ‘Not Possible’.
Sixteen service provisions were outlined for discussion with additional space for new suggestions and proposals from the community.
The round-table discussions were facilitated by councillors and Comhairle senior staff, with an emphasis on discussion and feed-back rather than hard decision making at this event.
Among the proposals were discussions of the future of itinerant tuition in primary schools for music, art and PE, with options for partnerships with community organisations, such as Ceolas and Feisean being proposed.
The future of the community’s role in school maintenance and janitorial services was outlined.
The future of local bus services, and the inter-island air service was discussed, with the potential for local ‘community landlords’ contributing to the cost of local transport services .
School transport services were also earmarked for discussions on community involvement, along with changes to the nature of assistants in special needs education and child care.
Also on the list for discussion was the future of Stornoway abattoir.
In addition, the community were asked to examine proposals to ‘rationalise’ the school estate, review and unify the curriculum in secondary schools, and to provide meals in schools to the elderly, ‘engaging older people in schools and the community on inter-generational activities.’
A proposal for new executive head teachers, over-seeing more than two schools, was also discussed.
The meeting was invited to discuss the future of childcare with ‘community partnerships’ being encouraged to look at providing ‘efficient wrap-around care through activity clubs’, and a review of charging levels for all non-statutory services, ‘or consider not providing them at all’.
Moves to ‘help link people with care needs more effectively to community support’ were outlined, but with ‘the need to sustain community buy-in and a willingness to support neighbours and friends who are becoming frail, but who are not yet at the stage of needing formal care.’
Controversial proposals to postpone the purchase of new mobile library service vans so that the future of the service could be discussed in the community conversation process, were outlined as part of discussions on whether local schools could be the home of new community libraries with a reduced mobile service.
During consideration of this item, Loch a’ Tuath councillor, Donald Crichton, pointed out that consideration was also to be given to the potential for the library van service to be retained and to deliver additional services to the community.
Future events across the islands are due to take place in the coming weeks.