The council consulting on savings

By Steven McKenzie
BBC Scotland Highlands and Islands reporter


Chancellor George Osborne has pledged to consult the public on where the UK government should make billions of pounds worth of cuts in services.

But a Scottish local authority is already several weeks into an effort that seeks the public's help in find £36m of savings.

Highland Council has been running a budget blog and this week will begin consulting with a 2,300-member Highland Citizens Panel.

image captionHow the council cares for older people is being scrutinised

Highland's budget leader David Alston admits there were worries about launching a blog inviting views on where cuts could be made in services.

The subject matter up for discussion is controversial - proposals to close schools, libraries and community centres, changes to the provision of care homes and how often bins are emptied.

Where the axe might fall affects every resident, young and old, and there are strong feelings about what should and should not be saved, or changed.

But Mr Alston said: "We have been impressed by the quality of the contributions and nothing has had to be moderated.

"There were worries when we started this exercise, but the views have been very considered and thoughtful."

He said both opinions and fresh ideas have been posted on the blog.

Among issues generating the most feedback has been the proposal to shut, or reduce the opening hours, of libraries.

One person posted a message warning that the loss of libraries in rural areas would have a "detrimental effect" on communities.

They said for older people it was often the only social contact they had with other people.

Moving to fortnightly bin collections has attracted a generally favourable response and people said it would save money and encourage more recycling.

The amount of waste being recycled in the Highlands has increased from about 2% in 2003 to 35% today, but the local authority wants to stop far more rubbish from ending up in landfill sites.

Care for older people has been another hot topic.

A previous SNP-led administration had committed to constructing the homes in Fort William, Grantown-on-Spey, Inverness, Muir of Ord and Tain.

But the current Liberal Democrat, Labour and Independent administration has been warned by council officers that going ahead with the construction project carries with it substantial costs.

Officials have suggested using private sector sites for less money.

A protest march has been planned for Fort William on 19 June by residents opposed to any move that would see the building of new homes halted.

On the budget blog, a 75-year-old said going into care was something he was increasingly seeing as a possibility.

He said he had no problem going into a privately-run home as he regarded them to be more accountable and their staff more flexible than council homes.

The blog will run until the end of the month.

Meanwhile, this week will see the 2,300 people who signed up for the citizens' panel asked for their views on the council's performance and proposed savings.

Mr Alston said the local authority had sought to make sure a cross section of the Highlanders were represented.

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