Highland Council Deficit Blues
2nd October 2020
Councillors have agreed a cautious and prudent approach to the Highland Council's Revenue Budget for 2020/21.
Depute Leader Cllr Alasdair Christie said: "We know how hard these past 6 months have been for individuals, groups, schools, care providers and businesses. I would like to take this opportunity to sincerely thank everyone for their contributions to helping our area. We need to be helping each other as much as we can to tackle any second wave and to help the Highland's Recovery.
"Our decisions today highlight the ever-increasing uncertainty facing the Council in the current climate, with short- and medium-term adverse impacts on the Council's financial position.
"The report presented before us today details evidence of significant improvements the Council has made in managing its financial challenges during the coronavirus pandemic through prudence, tighter budget controls and Members' scrutiny."
Before potential additional government funding is applied, an estimated gap of £22.709m is now forecast for the 2020/21 revenue budget. It was previously anticipated that additional funding from government would help bring this to a near-balanced position, however Members were informed of the significant risks identified regarding two factors. Formal confirmation is yet to be received from Scottish Government regarding the income recompense scheme funds and for the Council’s request for flexibility around the use of council tax income from second homes. These two factors, pending confirmation, may increase the current year budget gap from a potential near-balanced position to a deficit of around £11.254m.
To offset this forecast increase in the Council’s budget gap, Members agreed to set aside the sum of £10.9m from the Council’s General Fund non-earmarked reserves.
Members agreed to continue lobbying both UK and Scottish Governments for additional funding. Members also approved the release of £3m Crown Estate Investment Funds; and £2.293m of roads investment funding will also be released so that this work can now begin.
Cllr Christie said: "This investment in the Council’s infrastructure will be particularly important in enabling employment and assisting economic recovery across the Highlands."
Until greater certainty is reached on the budget position, any further budget spending will continue to be restricted to essential spending only.
The report stated: “At the time of a national pandemic our communities and staff have demonstrated outstanding resilience and capacity to work together and support our drive to be a sustainable Council; it is important that we go forward with confidence in having a range of options to deliver a sustainable Council and communicate with confidence to our Highland communities the capacity to deliver services, provide support and take care of the most vulnerable with our partners all within the financial capabilities open to us as an organisation."
A £33.571m programme of essential capital projects was also given approval by Members to initially progress across the current financial year (£20.363m) and future years (£13.208m). Projects include flood schemes (Drumnadrochit and Conon Bridge); investments in waste and recycling facilities; and a range of essential works in schools and council properties.
An amendment by Cllr Maxine Smith and seconded by Cllr Pauline Munro was agreed by the Council to allow Wards with unspent Covid money, especially the deprived areas to spend their money on projects to assist children and adults post Covid, such as contributing to playpark equipment. Members also agreed to reconsider the deferment of the £100,000 Playpark Fund and that a report would be brought back to a future meeting of the Council on this matter.
Budget update reports will continue to be provided to all meetings of The Highland Council.