Published: 14/03/2018 07:00 - Updated: 12/03/2018 16:50

Funding cuts will damage communities - warning

Written byIain Ramage


David McGrath
David McGrath - 'chance smaller councils will fold'.

CHRISTMAS lights could be ditched, play park maintenance shelved, local events scrapped and donations to needy charities halted as a result of budget cuts by Highland Council.

The warning, from community councils in and around Inverness, follows reductions of between 48 per cent and 58 per cent in their annual grants for basic running costs.

Some could fold, it has been claimed, because they will no longer afford to operate.

Play parks could be especially hard hit due to Highland Council’s decision to reduce direct funding for the facilities.

Highland Council leader Margaret Davidson has praised the organisations but defended the cut because it will help safeguard front-line services. She also dismissed claims that the volunteer groups are being expected to do more as part of a "big society" or what she calls "localism".

Alarm bells rang at a meeting of the Association of Inverness Area Community Councils (AIACC) which represents 28 of the groups.

One example given was Smithton and Culloden, which has faced a council grant reduction of almost two-thirds in five years.

Larger, urban community councils will see a bigger reduction than their rural counterparts.

The groups will receive an annual £400 in rural areas and £350 in urban places – plus 13p per elector within their council boundary. In 2012, that top-up was 37p per elector.

In Smithton and Culloden, the rate for 2018-19 will be just over £1100 compared with £3175 six years ago.

An extra burden will be a new cost of insurance liability for hosting local events. It was previously paid by Highland Council. Community councils also fund the costs of auditing accounts.

AIACC chairman David McGrath fears communities could lose out on a wide range of things including festive lights, pensioners’ lunch clubs, children’s nurseries, donations to local charities and floral displays.

He said: "We want to carry on but, ultimately, some will shut up shop. It’s quite possible that smaller councils will fold.

"We’re all going to be struggling to function in future without a decent level of grant – while Margaret Davidson keeps banging on about ‘localism’ with communities taking on more duties like grass cutting, sports fields and running village halls.

"Why would we, if there’s no guaranteed funding to help us?"

Council finance chiefs have conceded that reducing the overall annual £188,000 community councils’ grant by £100,000 (53 per cent) would have a "significant impact on service".

Another major issue of concern is a lack of funds to assist applications for external funding such as lottery grants and government agency aid for local projects.

"A formal application requires a proper business plan, architects’ drawings and feasibility studies – all of which can cost professional fees," Mr McGrath said.

Inverness South Community Council secretary Bob Roberts said: "This could get very serious. It’s not so bad for some of the communities with a large or growing population but where there’s a steady population they’re going to lose out because of the scale of the grant cut.

"When you take off the cost of insurance and any other essential expenditure, it’ll leave almost nothing, which means they won’t be able to do the basic things.

"I understand the council’s budgetary constraints but if they want community empowerment legislation initiated it will put more of a burden on communities."

The budget papers conceded that "this level of reduction will prove difficult for some community councils and may restrict their ability to be more involved in engagement activity in their community at a time when the (Highland) council is developing its approach to localism".

The existing grants system is due to be reviewed by Highland Council in the coming year.

Councillor Davidson said: "The £100,000 saving meant we had fewer front-line services to cut. For example, we protected pupil support assistants, street cleaners and mental health officers.

"Some community councils have several thousands of pounds in reserves. If any have a problem coping financially I’d suggest they approach their ward managers and apply for a discretionary budget top-up."

She added: "The comments about localism are unfair. We’re serious about promoting local decision-making and I hope community councils are part of that.

"The comments about taking on more services are odd. Local services are usually taken on by community trusts or companies and I hope we see much more of that. Such progress will not always fall on community council shoulders."

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