Emergency talks to cut costs at cash-strapped council
Highland Council must find a way to save nearly £40m over the next three years.
By Iain Ramage
Emergency talks will be held this week between Highland Council leaders and all department heads in an attempt to bridge a huge budget gap.
Chief executive Donna Manson and the local authority's budget leader Alister Mackinnon intend to "set out the need for tight budget controls".
Highland approved a substantive "programme for change" - entitled A Sustainable Highland - in February, aiming to find savings of almost £37.5m over the next three years.
The council is facing a current overspend of more than £5m and has acknowledged a risk of "new, unbudgeted pressures such as rising costs".
A so-called 'change fund' of £2.5m has been set aside to help fund the programme.
Councillors will be asked next week to approve spending £1m of the fund on delivering savings. The remaining money is earmarked to cover risk.
Councillor Mackinnon said: "We must live within our means in meeting customer needs and we must deliver our legal responsibilities. We simply can't afford to spend beyond our means, no matter how compelling the case.
"We now have the lowest levels of (emergency) reserves we've ever had and there will always be emerging pressures to deal with over the course of the year.
"This year's savings will not be easy but we have to deliver them. If we haven't got the money, we can't carry on as before and we have to change."
Mrs Manson added: "Our budget holders are key to the success and they now understand the necessary controls which are planned and the important roles they play in order to restrict expenditure.
"The meetings with budget holders have been extremely positive with managers fully engaged in being part of the solution.
"There's been really honest dialogue and lots of good ideas for how we can adapt and find ways of working together to make the changes necessary to deliver a balanced budget.
"I'm impressed and inspired with the leadership I have seen in our staff."
Budget measures will include continuing to freeze non-essential vacancies, controlling the use of agency staff - on which the council spent more than £3m last year - avoiding the use of consultants and additional procurement controls.