Call for Lochaber to break away from Highland Council

Highland Council headquarters In Inverness. NO F19 council HQ
Highland Council is now too big to serve the people of Lochaber properly, according to Councillor Andrew Baxter.

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Highland Council is too big, too remote and too out of touch with the residents of Lochaber and the area should now have its own local authority.

So says Councillor Andrew Baxter, Fort William and Ardnamurchan, speaking after several months of heated conflict with the leadership of the Inverness-headquartered body.

The latest row came last week when Mr Baxter was publicly slapped down by Budget Leader Alister Mackinnon in extraordinary scenes at the meeting of  the corporate resources committee, chaired by the latter and held virtually due to coronavirus lockdown restrictions.

Although Mr Baxter is not a member of that particular committee, he was allowed to speak.

Mr Baxter condemned proposals seeking agreement from councillors on the setting up of a budget committee that would only meet in private, to discuss year-end accounts in private, along with current council expenditure and the local authority’s capital programming and planning.

Mr Baxter told fellow councillors the report was possibly ‘the most alarming report’ he had ever seen come before a committee.

Mr Mackinnon attempted to exclude Mr Baxter from the remainder of the meeting after the latter went on to slam the proposal as ‘a death warrant for openness, scrutiny, transparency and democracy’.

An angry Mr Mackinnon, defending his own record on openness and transparency, said the remarks were offensive and called on Mr Baxter to retract them.

Commenting afterwards, Mr Baxter claimed it was another blatant attempt to stop those asking difficult questions from contributing.

Earlier this summer Mr Baxter was expelled from the Independent group in the ruling administration after he posted a video on the Independent group’s Facebook page.

Compiled by Conservative group leader Councillor Andrew Jarvie, it attacked the administration leadership, but was alleged to contain factual errors on the local authority’s financial position.

Now after this latest controversy, Mr Baxter says it is time to dismantle Highland Council.

‘In short, I do think it is time to break up the Highland Council. A West Coast authority, maybe including northern Argyll and Mull with Skye?’ he suggested.

‘Our council has proven it is too big, too remote, too Inverness-centric, too out-of-touch with local needs to serve the people of Lochaber.’

Asked for his view, fellow Independent Ben Thompson, Caol and Mallaig, said: ‘It’s time for a City of Inverness Council. It is the biggest Scottish city without its own council.

‘It is a case of when it happens, not if, because the population is increasing there and decreasing in the rest of the Highlands.

‘Preparation ought to be underway already – but it’s a matter for the Scottish Government to take forward, not Highland Council.

‘Council policies that work for Inverness don’t necessarily work outside Inverness. Because every senior council executive is based there, new developments always happen there first. A West Highland Council would seem to make most sense to me.’

And Mr Thompson’s fellow Caol and Mallaig member, Lib Dem Denis Rixson, added: ‘Instead of devoting time and resources to a new structure I would prefer increased devolution of power, responsibility and resources within the existing structure – through area committees. I think it would be quicker and more cost-effective.’