On Thursday Laurie Fraser put a motion to Highland Council which obtained cross party support across the chamber at Glenurquhart Road. This is what he said:
"Following discussions across the chamber and on behalf of the Independent Group, I propose that we amend our motion to as follows: The report of the Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy was supported across the chamber and members agreed strongly with its conclusions that we must develop genuine local decision making closer to the communities in the Highlands. Whilst noting the important role of regional government in many other European countries we recognise that these aspirations cannot be met by the Highland Council alone with its current structures. Therefore we call on the Highland Council to continue its leadership in this debate and propose that Highland Council in partnership with community representatives produce a report that sets out a range of viable options for local decision making through stronger local representation and participative democracy in the Highlands.
I’ll start by saying a little bit of history. In the beginning we had the Burghs and Counties, they in turn occasionally fed into joint council. They were reasonably well respected and had directly elected local member. At that time we all recognised that reform was required. In 1975 the Regions and Districts were create. These councils worked well in delivering local services and setting their own taxes and charges. In the Highlands we had eight district councils and one regional. However in the nineties, Conservative Government decided to set out and reorganise the councils in Scotland. This would have been fine but the priority was to get rid of the monster council Strathclyde and, of course, save money. The communities were an afterthought along with the councillors who served these councils. I was going to have a go at a certain councillor here but the great multi-coloured bird of the Highland Regional Council, which later turned red, met with the then Secretary of State and convinced him only a giant sized council would fit and work for the Highlands; bigger than Wales or Belgium, one size would fit all.
|Laurie speaking to the Highland Council chamber on Thursday|
However twenty years later this Council, I believe, is losing its relevance. Not only is but is disconnecting from its communities. It starts by describing itself as a highland government gov.com on all its e-mails – not a council of the communities. After twenty years, we’ve lost the Water Board, and then recently the Police and the Fire Board went off to Edinburgh – although sometimes I suspect it is more Glasgow than Edinburgh. Finally, the care of the elderly went to the NHS and if this carries on Education will ultimately go to Edinburgh. I don’t believe there is no longer a requirement for a regional government here in Inverness. Throughout the Highlands the citizens of the local communities are calling for control of their affairs and an end to centralisation. The right to raise and set their own local taxes, to set their own expenditure priorities. The priorities of the east are not the priorities of the west or the priorities of the centre here. We’ve too few councillors to do justice to our local democracy. We’ve area committees stretching from 75 miles, in some cases a 100 miles. For example, the extremities of Nairn to the Drumochter Pass on the A9. In our case it is 8 councillors over 2 wards – a sort of grand area committee of the people. It’s unrealistic for this massive area to be truly served by an area committee and be called true democracy by that very same multi-coloured bird that turned red.
It’s almost sort of farcical. No matter how you chop and change the structures and agendas of the Council and the Area Committees you just cannot have local democracy. Centralising is failing our communities at every level whether it is roads, harbours, planning, parks, gardens, services or housing – you just have to read your local papers. In some cases, this Council is, in effect, an absentee landlord for the number of properties we have lying about the Highlands. It takes too long to process projects and in most cases assets that the community believe are theirs end up in the central administration pot. This in turn brings resentment from communities and councillors alike. What is the point of spending effort to sell and dispose of property if you can’t reap the rewards of that sale? Now I don’t have the time or the wish to detail many of this Council’s failings due to its centralised agenda but I’m more than willing to give examples later on if required.
A number of our staff have to drive over long distances – not so much by choice but by necessity to keep their jobs. To a certain extent some are demoralised by the ever changing structures and having to be re-interviewed for their own jobs again and again. They want stability in their lives and to work for a stable local government. Central officials coming and spending a half day, giving instructions and directions, it’s not very fair. We need to take back control of our communities and that is why I’m advocating as a starting point that we need to be going back to 8 District Councils, serving the Highlands as before, funded directly by the Scottish Government without a regional authority. We need to set out what the communities want of its council and basing a council on centralisation and cost should not be a first consideration as it has been in the past. In America, if a community is large enough to form its own council it holds a referendum, opts out of council control and sets up its own council. What could be wrong with a referendum over local council control? We should have nothing to fear from democracy. By giving back councils to the towns and Counties of the Highlands we’ll end centralisation, improve employment locally, make our communities stronger and financially sound and restore our self pride. I therefore propose this motion to the Council and look for support and I’d like to hear from other members. Thank you."