Highlands & Islands

Watchdog critical of Highland Council's performance

Highland Council
Image caption The Accounts Commission said it was "critical" Highland Council closed a forecast budget gap by 2023

A public spending watchdog says it is "disappointed" with Highland Council's progress in improving services and making savings in the last decade.

The Accounts Commission said the local authority had drawn on its reserves so often that these funds were now one of the lowest in Scotland.

In a new report, it said the delivery of services in priority areas, including education, had been "poor".

The report also highlighted positives, such as the Highland Youth Parliament.

Highland Council said the Account Commission's Best Value audit, which examined the local authority's performance since 2010, had recognised a recent "increase in the pace of change" to meet its priorities.

But the watchdog said it was "critical" the authority closed a forecast budget gap of £77.3m by 2023 after having had a "poor record of delivering on savings".

'Very challenging'

It added that over the last five years, the performance of many Highland Council's services had declined against national indicators, notably education.

The commission is to increase its monitoring of the local authority efforts in services and making savings.

The report has also highlighted positive work.

This includes the Highland Youth Parliament, which was set up in 2001 to give young people across the region a voice on council matters. Its representation has recently included young people with additional needs.

Image copyright PA
Image caption The Accounts Commission said the council's delivery of services in priority areas, including education, had been "poor"

High Life Highland, Highland Council's largest arm's length organisation which runs leisure centres, swimming pools and libraries, had also brought improvements to services and savings in some areas, the commission said.

Andrew Burns, a member of the Accounts Commission, said further changes to the way the council delivered its services were "vital".

He said: "It is reassuring that change is now happening more quickly and it is really important that this momentum is maintained.

"It will, however, be very challenging for the council to meet all of its commitments and priorities.

"Given the urgent nature of the issues raised in our report, the Accounts Commission will maintain a close interest in the progress made by Highland Council."

Margaret Davidson, leader of Highland Council, said the report recognised the authority's "clear strategic vision".

She said: "The council continues to operate in a very challenging environment and we recognise the effort and investment needed to deliver on our best value duty and implement the audit recommendations."