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The Highland Line: the fight to save Highland council service points from closure

The Independent opposition councillors on Highland Council have the bit between their teeth, having found an important issue around which to rally.

They fought hard this week to stop the SNP/Lib Dem/Labour coalition administration's plans to slash the number of council service points from 35 to 23, with many under threat in remote communities. But the council's Finance Housing and Resources Committee voted 13 to nine to proceed.

However the issue will now almost certainly be brought to the full council meeting in March by the Independents who will regroup ahead of that.

There is every chance they will lose again, being outvoted by the rainbow coalition who can normally muster a majority of at least half a dozen.

But the Independents will have already performed an important democratic function in ensuring that every councillor has a say.

The service points earmarked for closure are Acharacle, Ardersier, Bettyhill, Bonar Bridge, Broadford, Brora, Dornoch Durness, Fort Augustus, Fortrose, Gairloch, Grantown, Helmsdale, Hilton, Invergordon, Kingussie, Kinlochleven, Kyle, Lairg, Lochcarron, Lochinver, Mallaig and Muir of Ord.

These communities don't all have representatives on the Finance Housing and Resources Committee so couldn't vote. Not one of the six councillors in Skye and Lochalsh for example is on the committee.

Service points were set up across the Highlands to allow the public access to the council for the likes of paying council tax or housing rent, arranging special refuse collections or picking up for planning applications and parking permits.

But the administration argues that the public have been voting with their feet preferring to use the online or call centre facilities. A service point in Inverness can have 1,000 customers a week but in some of the remote communities it can be as few as two or three, sometimes none.

However the service points are also used to register a birth, death or marriage when by law, people have to present themselves in person with specific documents. In the case of registering a death, that has to be within eight days.

If the closure plan is implemented somebody living in Gairloch would have to travel nearly 60 miles to Dingwall and back again.

Meanwhile those in Acharacle at the west end of Loch Shiel would have to go to Fort William either by way of the Corran Ferry, which is 35 miles (70 miles round trip) or the 45 miles (90 miles round trip) by Glenfinnan.

This was described as discriminatory against people who live in remote rural areas by the Independent councillors, and they do seem to have a point.

If the law of the land demands that a death must be registered in under two weeks, how can it be equitable that the ability of those living in or near towns to meet their legal requirements is totally unaffected by a council policy change; but for those in remote rural communities it has become significantly more difficult?

Now the ruling administration has given assurances that an outreach service will be developed. It will mean that those unable to travel to a service point for the registration service, could get a home visit. It remains to be seen how effective that could be.

For other service point business in or near service points due to close, there are to be self service points, mostly in libraries.

According to the council: "These facilities will be provided in all 40 libraries across the Highlands, meaning that people will have access to self service in more locations than the current service, and in most cases, for longer periods, including, for some, Saturdays and/or evenings. In some communities there may be other more suitable solutions for example at a Visitor Information Centre, school or with other partners. "

But a computer terminal in a village library, is not necessarily the answer for the elderly and the vulnerable.

Meanwhile, about 30 full-time and part-time staff will be affected, mostly women relying on part-time positions which are like gold dust in some communities.

So the three pledges Council Leader Drew Hendry gave at the meeting, are important.

He said: "Firstly, no member of staff will face compulsory redundancy as a result of this process. Secondly all new contact facilities will be in place before any existing services are removed. And, thirdly, anyone who either needs - or wants - a face to face contact within those communities, where a change is to be made, can make an appointment suitable to them."

The projected savings will be £355,000, with £195,000 being reinvested into new jobs in the remaining community hubs, service centres and website management and then £160,000 returned as savings to the council.

It will be 15 months before the change is completed. During that time, the council administration has more work to do reassuring those most affected.

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Local government

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