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Motion to Highland Council meeting today calls for review of local authority area

By Gregor White

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Some councillors believe Highland Council does not serve all the areas under its jurisdiction equally well.
Some councillors believe Highland Council does not serve all the areas under its jurisdiction equally well.

There have been growing calls for the return of smaller council ward areas in the Highlands.

Can a local authority the size of Belgium adequately serve all of its communities?

Some Highland councillors say no, and they have lodged a motion to that effect for today’s virtual meeting of the full Highland Council which has been delayed from 10.35am and is now due to start at noon due to IT problems.

The motion brands regionalism a “failed experiment” and calls on ministers to “return local authorities to their most localised form possible”.

What does that mean?

Back in the 1970s, Scotland was governed by small county councils. Their geographical remit grew over time to become district councils. In 1995, despite bitter opposition, Highland Council subsumed these smaller local governments.

The argument in favour was for efficiency and combined resources while the argument against was the loss of local identity and representation.

Since then, successive councillors have called for change. Some press for a return to county councils, or district councils.

More recently, the focus has narrowed squarely on Inverness.

Inverness is the fastest growing city in Scotland and the self-proclaimed "capital of the Highlands". Its rapid population growth and urban development has fuelled calls for it to have its own council, like its southern neighbours.

Some argue that Inverness is the engine of the Highlands, pumping wealth out to the hinterlands.

Others, like Councillor Struan Mackie, say rural communities are “left to fight for the scraps”.

Mr Mackie is tabling today’s motion, with councillors Jim McGillivray and Andrew Baxter seconding.

It asks the minister for local government to order a holistic review of the local authority area.

The motion states: “The regionalisation of councils has been a failed experiment and a singular unitary authority for the Highland region does not, and has not, served the people of the Highlands effectively and fairly.”

It continues: “Whilst some thirteen local government areas maintained their councils, such as Clackmannan and Moray who both have smaller populations than our own, the current arrangement for the Highlands is neither equitable nor sustainable.”

Announcing the motion on social media, Councillor Mackie took aim at what he sees as an Inverness bias.

He highlighted the large infrastructure investments in Inverness though the city region deal which he claims “shortchanged” rural Highland.

Today’s debate will doubtless be a fiery one, with the local government elections looming next May.

The SNP opposition is likely to highlight the Scottish Government’s Local Governance Review, which looks at councils in the round and introduces an international comparison.

That review was derailed by the pandemic and is beginning to swing back into action.

Whatever today’s vote yields, one thing is almost certain: the debate will rage on.

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