Opposition leader will keep pushing Highland Council for emergency budget meeting

Highland Council headquarters.
Highland Council headquarters.

Liberal Democrat leader Alasdair Christie has failed in his attempt to call an emergency meeting of the Highland Council – but says he won’t stop trying.

Last week, Councillor Christie tabled a special motion of requisition, which would have forced the council to convene within 14 days.

Opposition members believe the emergency meeting is necessary amid concerns over the budget gap and potential job losses.

However, Cllr Christie’s proposal contravenes a decision made by the full council in December, to hold the budget meeting in March. As such, it looks set to fail.

Cllr Christie says the administration refuses to work together, and the requisition is necessary to “force their hand”.

Cllr Alasdair Christie.
Cllr Alasdair Christie.

Council leaders say the budget plans will be debated in public on March 2, as previously agreed.

Highland Council leaders and finance bosses have spent the last few weeks poring over the detail of the Scottish Government budget to understand the implications for Highland.

Earlier, they said they expected to face a £40.9 million shortfall in the revenue budget.

As such, some services may need to be cut or removed altogether, with up to 500 jobs going.

Speaking in December, budget leader Derek Louden said his door is always open, in response to criticism about a lack of communication.

Now, Cllr Christie says talk is cheap. He wants a public airing of the budget talks.

“I filed the requisition to discuss where we’re at with the financial settlement, pay awards, inflation and the budget gap,” he said.

“We need to re-appraise what it actually is, because the budget gap now is not £40 million, it’s actually closer to £50 million. I put in a requisition for a council meeting to discuss that.”

Cllr Christie says that requisition has been refused, but does not plan to let it go.

“In September, October and December meetings the administration talked about collaboration, about working together,” he said.

“The requisition to council is to force the hand. It’s quite clear the administration has no real intent to work collaboratively. It’s just a smoke screen.

“We need to make sure the Highland folk see in a public setting – not away behind closed doors – what is actually happening, and understand the seriousness of the financial position facing the Highland Council.”

And he didn’t mince his words about the administration’s chances of sorting it out.

“They’ve got no plan, they’ve got no idea and they’ve got no clue how to run a budget process.”

However, council leader Raymond Bremner accused Cllr Christie of playing politics. He said Cllr Christie has not approached the administration to discuss the budget.

Council leader Raymond Bremner.
Council leader Raymond Bremner.

Cllr Bremner also questioned the effectiveness of holding a requisitioned meeting in such a short time frame. The Highland Council budget meeting is scheduled for March 2, and the budget plan needs to be published 10 days in advance.

If Cllr Christie succeeds in forcing a special meeting, it would need to take place in February. That leaves only a couple of weeks to action any decisions made at that meeting.

“Cllr Christie is wasting the council’s time and risks bringing the council into disrepute by trying to requisition meetings when we have a democratically agreed diary,” he said.

Instead, Cllr Bremner and convener Bill Lobban said opposition members should work on their own proposals.

“The opposition has free and open access to council officers,” Cllr Lobban said. “They can then come to the administration with budget proposals and we will take a view on those.”

Cllr Bill Lobban.
Cllr Bill Lobban.

Cllr Bremner said some members have already done so, and their ideas will be heard.

Cllr Christie rubbished that suggestion, saying the administration is “always distant and unwilling” to talk to the opposition.

Not only that, he claims they’re also unwilling to go to bat for the Highlands at a national level.

“It’s about time this SNP administration stood up for the Highland region and actually went and challenged the Scottish Government,” he said.

It’s all the more important this year, with public finances in freefall and jobs on the line.

“This year is totally different to other years. It’s by far the most serious financial position many councillors can remember.”

He added: “We’ll continue to push for debate in public, and scrutiny in public, because that’s the best form of democracy.”

Cllr Lobban said: “The requisition sought the calling of a Special Council meeting in January. Following the advice of the head of corporate governance that the terms of the requisition were contrary to a decision of council in December not to hold a Special Council meeting in January, it was therefore decided that the requisition is not competent and the meeting that was being sought will not be called.”

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