Fears service point closures would target the vulnerable

BY KEITH MACKENZIE
keith.mackenzie@whfp.co.uk

The elderly and vulnerable stand to lose out most from plans to close council service points throughout the Highlands, it was claimed this week.

In a move which has shocked staff and opposition politicians,  the local authority wants to shut 23 of its 35 service point facilities — among them the offices at Kyle of Lochalsh, Broadford, Lochcarron and Gairloch.

Customers typically use the service points to access information on a range of council services, to pay bills, buy bus tickets and to register births, marriages and deaths.

At Broadford and Kyle the service points also include libraries — access for which could now be moved to what the council term a “facilitated self service” arrangement.

The 35 service points would be replaced by 12 “hub” facilities, with a new website designed to cut out the need for face-to-face access. Under the proposals Skye and Lochalsh’s only remaining service point would be in Portree, with the next nearest being in either Dingwall or Fort William. In future, residents in south Skye, Lochalsh and Wester Ross would face trips of over 100 miles to register a death.

The proposals — and the method which the council administration used to arrive at them — were slammed by west-coast councillors.

Wester Ross, Strathpeffer and Lochalsh member Audrey Sinclair said the plans — which the council say will save them £160,000 a year — target the very worst-off in society.
“It is older people and the vulnerable who often use these services, and it is them who will lose out,” she said. “I will be voicing opposition in the strongest terms. I’m particularly astonished at the plans to close the Kyle service point, which is well used and if it goes it is going to leave a massive geographical area without any access at all.”

Dr Sinclair questioned whether the plans would make any significant savings in council budgets. At Kyle the local authority already has a lease on the service point building, which is also home to other local council departments, she said.

Staff were told of the plans by email last Friday, and many service points were closed on Tuesday while workers travelled to council headquarters in Inverness for a further briefing.

Information passed to the Free Press reveals the council’s rationale.  The criteria for closure appear to involve cost and the weekly footfall at the various service points — with geographical factors barely taken into account.

The figures show 25 “business activities” at Broadford per week, at a cost of  £18 per customer contact. In Lochcarron the figures are 21 at £11. By contrast Kyle demonstrates over 70 weekly to cost £9 each.
The cost at Kyle is only marginally higher than at Portree, and cheaper than at Ullapool where a service point is to be retained.

Staff have been told that a number of jobs will be at risk if offices close. Currently the Kyle service point supports one full-time and one part-time job, while there is one full-time role at Broadford. The new arrangements suggest the creation of one additional part-time post in Portree.

Skye councillor Hamish Fraser described the proposals as a “step too far”. He added: “Highland Council speaks of strengthening communities, but this will weaken them. I’m very angry about the plans, and about the  lack of consultation.
“I don’t understand the logic of this at all — are they expecting people at the Point of Sleat or Elgol to travel 100 miles to register a death?”
A report setting out the recommendations will be presented to the council’s finance, housing and resources committee next Wednesday (26th February).  The review will show that nearly one-third of customers wanted to access services online and at the same time demand at service points had continued to fall.

A council spokesman said the review took account of the need to “achieve savings in the customer services budget and to reflect the changing trends of the ways customers want to do business with the council”.

Any changes agreed will be implemented before June 2015, allowing 15 months to work with service point staff to put in place the new arrangements.
The council is currently upgrading its web presence to make it easier for the public to book services and pay for services on line.  The new website will be launched by the end of April.