Saturday, November 15, 2014

Highland Council austerity cuts - Communities will have to be quick to shout out for the resources they wish to protect?

The Highland Council's austerity budget survey will come to an end soon. We have featured some of the possible impacts on our community in recent articles, including one where Liz MacDonald alerts us to the possible loss of 50% loss of the funding to Nairn Community and Arts Centre. 

Elsewhere others are waking up to the cuts that are to come. Down in Newtonmore the supporters of the Highland Folk Museum have been quick off the mark to start a social media campaign to prevent the closure of their local facility. 

The Folk Museum is a pan-Highland cultural facility and because of that efforts to save it from the full impact of cuts will probably get more momentum than any similar initiatives to protect the likes of our Community Centre or museum, etc ever would. In effect, across the Highlands communities will be competing against each other to offset the impact of austerity cuts in their localities. Those who wish to protect the folk museum are very wise in getting in early with a profile raising exercise. 

One of our regular readers said recently that this was a bad time to be a councillor as there were no easy choices to be made. Another has said that there is also a threat to Nairn Museum with it possibly losing a substantial part of its funding too. Nairn museum charges admission and is independently run. The Highland Folk Museum is run by the Highland Council’s “arm’s length” organisation Highlife Highland and entry is free so comparison is difficult but in its own way our small museum may do a lot to bring visitors to the town.

Coincidently, another of our readers has been concerned about the amount of public money going into the Highland Folk Museum for some time and would like to see it run on a more business orientated basis, especially as we move into the first waves of massive cuts. Our correspondent has stated:

“Apparently the original thinking behind the Highland Folk Park was to help create long term jobs and bring tourists into the area. It has been successful but at what cost? The fact that it is open only during the summer months and has the support of substantial numbers of volunteers helps to keep the running costs down enormously.” Our regular reader added that they thought the donation boxes dotted around the site were of little use and that there should be a sliding scale of charges for admission.

Our correspondent has given us figures that demonstrate that the Highland Folk Museum had expenditure of £535,000 in 2013 and income from donations and secondary spend of only £185,000. Campaigners to save the museum also call for charges to be made too, stating on a causes page:

“1. Get Highland Council to re-introduce entry charges at the Highland Folk Museum Newtonmore, with the aim of protecting our heritage  

2. To prevent the closure/sale of the Highland Folk Museum by the Highland Council

3. To ensure the Highland Folk Museum Collections remain in Badenoch.”

Compared to the potential of the Folk Museum to up their game and introduce charges what can our local museum do in a similar vein to raise? There have already been efforts to raise the profile and as stated above our museum already charges admission fees so no room for manoeuvre there. The folk museum also is part of the Highland Highlife network and therefore might have more chance of survival simply because of that. Of course it’s about real places and people and people’s jobs, including the folk museum cat perhaps, and it is tragic that one community’s gain might be another’s loss. Folk in Newtonmore could equally point to our swimming pool or library and the amount of public cash those facilities receive. Just illustrations of how complex the background to all the things we take for granted are when it comes to consideration of what must go. Who indeed would want to be a councillor and sign off the savage cuts that must come?

However, it is not to be forgotten too that there are those in Nairn who vehemently maintain that we don’t get our equitable share of local government resources anyway. If anyone has any figures about how much comes out of Nairn in terms of Council Tax and how much gets spent here pro rata they might be perhaps illuminating. It would be a place that Councillors would probably not want to go though as that kind of analysis might rock the raison d'etre of the Highland Council to the core if it were available. Whatever the reality of the fair share question it is unjust to this observer that communities have to face a one size fits all cuts regime imposed by a central authority. Would it not be better for the consultation to be devolved to local level and then we could decide ourselves what harm we wish to impose upon ourselves and where? Take the example in the survey of parking charges for every car park with over 20 spaces in the Highlands. Here in Nairn we don’t have any parking charges and with that many see an economic gain out of that for the town with tourists and locals coming in for shopping without having to pay for a parking space. The reality will be that those taking the survey elsewhere who have to pay charges already might be very inclined to vote for us to be inflicted with them too. 

As far as local government provision in the Highlands goes then a nightmare time is just around the corner as councillors sharpen the knives for what they are going to vote to sign off and the harm that will inflict on the Highlands.