Spean Bridge councillors ratchet up ward fund cash row

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Spean Bridge community councillors have agreed to seek an investigation by the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman into Highland Council’s discretionary ward funding.

It follows a row last month when Spean Bridge, Roy Bridge and Achnacarry Community Council had an application for money to distribute to small local community groups to fund Christmas functions rejected by Highland Council on the grounds the expenditure ‘could not be properly monitored’.

The refusal provoked ire amongst local community councillors, not least because money had been granted on the same basis for the last few years without any problems.

It saw the community council agree to complain to Audit Scotland and at their January meeting last week, community councillors agreed with chairman John Fotheringham that not only should the community council also formally complain to the local authority ombudsman but that they should also lodge a Freedom of Information (FOI) request with Highland Council to seek any evidence to support the existence of the monitoring procedures Highland Council claims are necessary for such awards.

Mr Fotheringham said he had been conducting research into the ward discretionary budgets and according to the rules governing the issue of money, there was a stipulation cash was not to be used for hospitality unless the hospitality was an intrinsic part of an organisation’s central remit.

‘But guess which organisation did spend money on hospitality?’ he asked, to which someone attending the meeting replied: ‘Highland Council’. ‘Bingo!’ answered Mr Fotheringham.

At the community council meeting in December, Mr Fotheringham highlighted that while ward fund grants for school activities could not exceed £250, Mallaig High School had still been given £1,500 for a trip to London, while Mallaig Primary School Parent Council was given £1,200 for ski-ing lessesons at Nevis Range.

Mr Fotheringham told this month’s meeting: ‘Mallaig seems to have done extremely well out of it. Nothing against these schools but I’m a little concerned Highland Council appears to be making the rules to suit itself. The council is not enforcing some rules, but enforcing others.

‘So I think we need to ratchet things up a bit and write to the local authority ombudsman. Highland Council approves money for hospitality to itself but then says it doesn’t fund hospitality and then you have Mallaig receiving substantially more than we have ever managed to get.

‘So I think we contact the local authority ombudsman because I don’t think it’s fair. In fact, I think it is all wholly unfair.’

Allan Henderson, Independent councillor for Caol and Mallaig, told the community council meeting it might be unaware of the lengths to which he and fellow Caol and Mallaig councillor, Ben Thompson, had gone to resolve the community council’s problems in obtaining money from the fund to give to small local groups for Christmas parties.

‘But we still had to take the flak for it after the deicision went against us and it was embarrassing for us,’ said Councillor Henderson.

Mr Fotheringham told the two councillors he was not criticisng them, but rather the system used by the local authority.

‘I think we put in an FOI request and see how much monitoring exactly has been done [by Highland Council] and if they have said they do more than they actually have, then Audit Scotland’s going to love that,’ said Mr Fotheringham.