Comhairle budget sees rise in council tax

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar

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Comhairle nan Eilean Siar has set its budget for 2017/18 without making further reductions to services or employees – but council tax will rise.
During last Tuesday’s budget meeting, the Comhairle raised council tax by three per cent, the maximum allowed by the Scottish Government. The council’s SNP group proposed an amendment opposing the rise but it was defeated in a vote.
Comhairle leader Angus Campbell said there had been good financial planning to balance out a ‘poorer than anticipated local government settlement’ from the Scottish Government.
Mr Campbell said: ‘Following the Scottish budget deal, an additional £160million was made available by Scottish government to councils, from which the Comhairle will receive almost £1m in additional revenue and £350,000 in additional capital. While very welcome, that figure in effect only mitigated a reduction in grant for the Comhairle.
‘It did enable the Comhairle, however, to support the vital social care services provided by the Integration Joint Board, by an additional £500,000, with the remaining £500,000 going to support balances for what will undoubtedly be difficult financial years ahead.’
Last week Na h-Eileanan an Iar SNP MSP Alasdair Allan welcomed a £275,000 funding boost for Western Isles schools from the Scottish Government’s new Pupil Equity Fund, designed to help close the poverty-related attainment gap.
He said: ‘The SNP in government has made closing the poverty-related attainment gap our number one priority. This new £120 fund is aimed at doing just that – supporting 21 primaries and four secondaries across the isles. By setting the funding per child registered for free school meals, schools in the Western Isles will be able to benefit from this fund.’
Highlands and Islands MSP Rhoda Grant responded by saying this apparent increase in funding is insufficient in light of recent budget cuts to local councils.
Ms Grant said: ‘This money is by-passing local councils and going directly to schools. This is being done against the background of extensive cuts to public services, including education, which, following the budget, we can expect to continue.’
The SNP group also proposed that the re-design of the children’s residential centre Hillcrest should be delayed and the service should not be cut. There is a firm plan in place for the transitional period, but this was also defeated. This amendment also included a plan to re-introduce concessionary fares on the Sound of Harris and the Sound of Barra.
The councillors agreed to reinstate a five-day air service between Benbecula and Stornoway with one rotation on Mondays and Fridays and two rotations the other three days.
Councillor Campbell has backed calls made by Loganair’s managing director Jonathan Hinkles for the present tax exemptions on flights from the Highlands and Islands to be in place for flights leaving from Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen.
He said: ‘Abolishing tax on flights to the islands is a perfect opportunity for the Scottish Government to demonstrate how serious it is about giving island areas a level playing field on the back of the productive discussions we have had with them on the Islands Bill. Island areas rely heavily on business and tourism to boost the economy and lower travel costs would certainly help us in that regard. This move would also greatly help the many families throughout the islands who are often priced out of travelling between mainland and island airports.’
A report on the potential for a Barra to Benbecula service is to be brought back to councillors at a future meeting.