Last Thursday the SNP and Independent Administration of Highland Council tabled their budget proposals for 2023/24.
Opposition councillors had not been consulted on their plans and were given just a week to study the 180 page document and try and identify which groups and services would be most affected, and to seek ways to mitigate the harshest effects on the most vulnerable.
The leader of the Conservative Group, Cllr Helen Crawford, was allowed just 5 minutes to address the Chamber on the Budget and to move an amendment. In 2021/22, Cllr Crawford led a successful campaign which resulted in a u-turn by Highland Council on a proposed rates freeze for private nurseries that provide Early Learning and Childcare partner services across Highland. During her 5-minutes speech, Cllr Crawford moved a further amendment seeking fairness for these nurseries. She said;
“We have no illusions regarding the magnitude of the financial challenge facing our Council. Nor how difficult it was to produce a budget under these circumstances. My sincere thanks to all the officials involved.
Constructive scrutiny of Council expenditure and plans is a core responsibility of every Councillor. That is what we are paid to do. But I and my opposition colleagues have been denied the opportunity to fulfil this role.
This SNP-led Budget contains minimal detail to enable us to identify the consequences of these proposed cuts, some of which are truly brutal.
I will not dwell on the national picture today because I only have 5 minutes to speak and we must focus on our Highland Community. But I note many of our problems derive from the paucity of the settlement we have received from the Scottish Government.
A government that Audit Scotland found had underspent by £2 Billion last year. A very small fraction of that sum would make a huge difference to our communities. Here’s a suggestion for the SNP-led Administration – why don’t you invite the Scottish Secretary for Finance and Economy to meet with us, cross-party, and face up to the consequences of this underfunding, right here in The Highlands?
Despite the very short time we have had to consider options, we have reached out cross-party. We have lodged and will support a range of amendments attempting to mitigate the worst of the proposed cutbacks. Our amendments and support will be given to mitigating cuts to vital organisations such as SNAP, Early Learning and Childcare, education, proposed increases in the costs of burying a loved one and mental health and wellbeing services. And, crucially, to identify extra funding to fix our roads.
I am therefore now proposing an amendment on Early Learning and Childcare. Hugely important to many Highland families.
I am appealing across the Chamber again to those who understand Early Learning and Childcare, and the value it has, to support this amendment regardless of party affiliation. We did it before, let’s do it again.
The Administration has proposed a freeze on the interim uplift payable to our ELC partners that, with cross-party support, was agreed only last October. It is palpably unfair that we assume a 3.5% for our own staff in the 2023/24 budget. Yet we expect our ELC partners, who face the same, or worse, financial pressures, to survive with no relief whatsoever. We talk about respecting our partners but I see no respect in that.
This amendment proposes a modest 3% rise in the private sector rate.
If we do nothing, we risk private nurseries across Highland closing with the loss not just of places for children but also the economic and social impact on families who will not be able to go to work. And we know that in many cases Highland Council run nurseries are more expensive to operate than those in the private sector. If private nurseries close then Highland Council will have to fill that gap. So the freeze is very likely not to result in a real saving but a cost.
I am especially concerned by the deepest of cuts to education - £4 million alone in this Budget. With a swipe on Early Learning and Childcare of £1.5million.
And yet, this Budget tell us nothing about the likely impact that these cuts will have on attainment. Early Learning and Childcare and attainment go hand in hand. Our Highland children already trail most of Scotland in literacy and numeracy. We must be more ambitious than that for our children. There is no detail on any of that in these papers.
Before I run out of time. Please do not think we underestimate the pressures the Administration has faced preparing this budget against a history of chronic underfunding from Scottish Government. I request that all Councillors are fully involved as future plans are developed so that we are not again denied the time to fulfil our role of scrutiny.”
Later in the meeting, Conservative Councillor Isabelle Mackenzie (Inverness Millburn) moved an amendment to protect funding for SNAP – a support charity that assists vulnerable children thrive – saying:
"I understand that money is tight and some difficult choices have to be made but the purpose of my amendment is to protect some of the most vulnerable of our young people at a relatively trivial cost.
There are very limited opportunities for children and young people with additional needs to socialise outside of school. SNAP is a charity that has existed since 1996 to improve the lives of young people with additional needs by providing social experiences, building self-confidence and helping them become independent.
All the children and young people helped by SNAP have learning disabilities and other severe and complex support needs. They are currently supporting 100 young people who meet these criteria and have a further 100 children on their waiting list.
SNAP currently employs 4 full-time, 12 part time and 14 sessional staff. SNAP also promotes quality volunteering, both in the teenage and adult sectors, with 12 volunteers at present.
There can be few, if any, councillors unaware of the excellent work of this charity and the esteem in which it is held by parents with some referring it as a ‘lifeline’ service that allows them much-needed breaks from their caring routines.
SNAP is also valued by social sorkers and teachers as well as other health and social care professionals who all refer children to our service on a regular basis.
SNAP’s income comes from a variety of voluntary sources but Highland Council is a major donor providing 20% of total funding. SNAP’s executive team are adamant that should this funding be withdrawn it could not be replaced from elsewhere. They would have absolutely no alternative but to reduce the number of children and young people they support.
This at a time that demand for their support and services is increasing as the impact of COVID on children’s development and mental health is becoming ever more apparent.
SNAP and similar charities are the 'unsung heroes of our communities'. We are truly blessed to have them helping us.
Again, I realise funding is tight. But SNAP is providing essential support for children and young people in great need and I can think of few better ways of spending £65,000 than continuing their grant."
The Conservative Group also supported amendments from other opposition councillors that would have increased funding for road repairs and saved a children’s music school in Lochaber.
All the amendments were voted down by the ruling SNP-Independent Administration. Links to some press reports covering the budget meeting are below.