BY KEITH MACKENZIE
A meeting of the full Highland Council next Thursday will represent a final chance to save local service points throughout the region.
Last week members of the council’s finance, housing and resources committee controversially backed plans — by 13 votes to nine — to axe 23 of the council’s 35 service points.
Those earmarked for closure include offices in Broadford, Kyle of Lochalsh, Lochcarron and Gairloch. The council want to leave in place 12 “hub” points in larger settlements, with self-service points and new online facilities filling the void in outlying areas. The closures will save in the region of £160,000.
Opposition councillors have attacked the council’s ruling coalition over the move, and petitions have been distributed throughout Skye and Lochalsh in a bid to force a rethink.
Opposition leader Carolyn Wilson, the independent councillor for Cromarty Firth, was especially critical of the finance committee’s failure to consider the views of local community councils.
News of the closure plan had been leaked through the media only days before last Wednesday’s meeting, but community councils in Skye and Lochalsh quickly rallied in opposition.
A submission, supported by 11 south Skye and Lochalsh community councils, was sent to finance committee members last Tuesday. However, the committee chair, the SNP councillor for Badenoch and Strathspey Dave Fallows, refused appeals for a recess in the meeting to consider these submissions.
Councillor Wilson accused the ruling group of “disregarding all the consultation”.
A notice of amendment, signed by 25 independent members, means the issue will be discussed again by all 80 Highland councillors next week.
In an open letter Councillor Wilson urged people to lobby coalition members to vote against the ruling administration.
“We would ask if you care about keeping the vital and important service points in your area open, please make your views known to your local councillor. The independent group are all supporting the service points being retained,” Councillor Wilson said.
The proposals also provoked an angry exchange at the council’s Skye ward forum held in Portree on Monday.
Sleat Community Council chairman Roddy Murray — who helped mobilise the opposition from neighbouring community councils — questioned the local authority’s logic in making the decision.
Mr Murray was responding to Skye Liberal Democrat Councillor Drew Millar, who said he would support the plans “if the services can be delivered through modern technology”.
Mr Murray suggested that if technology was the answer all 35 service points could close. Independents John Gordon and Hamish Fraser are both opposed to the service point closures, with the fourth Skye member, Ian Renwick of the SNP, yet to declare his intentions.
Dave Thompson, SNP MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch, has asked Highland Council chief executive Steve Barron to clarify exactly what the closures will mean for rural communities.
“I have written to Steve Barron to ask that he elaborate on the statement that additional services will be offered to folk who want a face-to-face visit and do not have easy access to a remaining service point,” said Mr Thompson. “Some of the proposals look like enhancements to the current service and this is good news. I would be interested to know if home visits will be made available for instance.
“I understand that the council has to make savings but I would appreciate sight of the mitigating proposals.”
Customers typically use service points to access information on a range of council services, to pay bills, to buy bus tickets and to register births, marriages and deaths.
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.