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Local watchdog budgets to be slashed

By Jessica Wilkins

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HIGHLAND Council has agreed to slash community council budgets despite efforts from all four local ward members to stop Badenoch and Strathspey from becoming one of the main losers in the region.

Members voted by 25-18 with eight abstentions at the latest full meeting of the council in Inverness for a new funding formula for community councils which will help get rid of major discrepencies in core funding for expenses the watchdogs all incur.

There will be a core award of £850 for rural watchdogs and £750 for others along with 0.37 pence per elector each.

As a result of the population factor, those community councils in Inverness will fare better than their rural counterparts who generally face a much heavier workload.

In total, 60 community councils have gained with 96 losing out including every single watchdog in Badenoch and Strathspey who will on average see their funding cut by one-quarter.

Grantown’s watchdog will fare worst locally and lose 31 per cent of their £2,487 budget which equates to £774.

Carrbridge Community Council will have its budget cut the least in the area – they will see a 21 per cent fall in the £1,412 they receive annually from Highland Council.

Local councillor Jaci Douglas had battled in the Glenurquhart Road council chamber for a better deal for Badenoch and Strathspey – but just missed out by two votes for a deferral to consult more widely with the community organisations.

She said at the meeting: "I appreciate the Chief Executive (Alistair Dodds) saying of course there will be winners and losers in this. My major concern is that my entire ward is a loser.

"I think losing such a massive amount of money from one ward is going to have a huge impact on our active and enthusiastic community councils.

"For all 12 community councils to lose so much money will have a detrimental effect on engaging the community."

Ms Douglas said the watchdogs were a vital link between councillors and voters when discussing the everyday problems communities faced.

She said that members of Grantown Community Council were very unhappy at the prospect.

She said: "I took this report with me and I explained the implications and you know what – they were totally devastated.

"They were so demoralised because they could lose up to £774 pounds in one year. They felt that more and more is being asked of community councils.

"There is training, consultations and they are being asked to make sure that are really hearing what their community is saying and bring that back into statutory consultation."

She was backed by the area’s other ward councillors, Gregor Rimell (Lib Dem) Stuart Black (Lib Dem) and Dave Fallows (SNP).

They agreed the proposals overlooked the important role community councils played in a rural environment.

Councillor Fallows, who seconded Ms Douglas’ motion, said: "Across the council, Badenoch and Strathspey is not the only ward that has a complete set of losers.

"There are some real problems with this and huge inconsistencies still remain between one council and another ward and the amount they achieve in the way of funding.

"There are huge inconstencies in the amounts of balances community councils keep across the whole area."

But budget Leader David Alston (Lib Dem) said a consultation with the watchdog would have been a fool’s errand.

He said Badenoch and Strathpsey, along with other wards, needed to take the hit: "However you play around with it there are going to be winners and losers because the system is unfair.

"We can carry out a consultation but if that amounts to people saying, ‘Do you want more or do you want less,’ we know what the reply will be.

"If you want results you consult the principal and that is exactly what we did. We went down there on a formula. You judge it on whether it is fair or not. You do not judge it by saying, ‘How is it going to affect me?’"

Dr Alston added that Highland councillors could give their community councils more via the ward discretionary fund.

This is the first review of community council spending since 2002 and will be implemented from April 2012 and staggered over two years.

The total budget for community councils has been £207,413 with an average grant of £1,347. However, this varies considerably and there have been anomalies both across and within council wards.

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