Highland Council is proposing a series of measures designed to help residents through the cost of living crisis.
The proposed £3.223million welfare package follows data showing remote areas of Scotland have to budget 10-33% more for household costs than the national average.
The council’s report also reveals that 63% of homes in the Highlands are out of gas. These homes will not benefit from the price cap offered by the UK government – although details of help for LPG, oil and coal customers are expected soon.
The Highland Council says the data showing that a third of Highland homes are fuel poor is now outdated and the reality is likely to be much worse.
The planned cash injection of £3m comes on top of the overall social budget of £54m and the additional £3.4m already agreed in June.
The council’s report highlights the nature of the crisis, saying: ‘One of the main aims of the wellbeing proposals presented in this report is to enable residents to eat, heat their living spaces and continue to live in safely at home.”
£145 for Highland homes
Highland Council is offering to give £145 in cash to households benefiting from council tax deductions or exemptions. This would see 17,400 municipal ratepayers receive the money by the end of November.
To be eligible, customers will need to benefit from means-tested council tax deductions or exemptions due to personal circumstances. These include mental disability, people who receive or provide care outside their home and those under 18 years of age.
To help low-income families, the council also plans to expand payment for free school meals. Currently, some children benefit from free school meals from Monday to Friday during school holidays as well as during school periods. Under this plan, they will also receive meals on weekends until Easter 2023. This means that children from low-income families will receive a meal every day during the October and Christmas holidays.
Finally, community groups helping with food and other essential services could apply for grants of up to £10,000. FareShare, the food distribution network, could receive a one-time grant of £50,000 to boost its operation in the Highlands.
These proposals will cost Highland Council £3.223million on top of its cost of living and welfare. It will be financed by unallocated reserves. The plan must be approved this Thursday Meet of the Highland Council.
Highland Council also affected by cost of living crisis
As Highland Council takes steps to help its residents, it must also get its own house in order.
He is currently facing a £9.6million overrun in this year’s revenue budget. But that’s small fry compared to the £40.9m budget gap it expects to face next year. Council finance bosses say the size of the gap is likely to continue to repeat itself in years to come, until inflation is brought under control.
Thursday’s report said the council is under “significant pressure on its finances, primarily due to the current high inflation environment.” The report quotes Deputy Prime Minister John Swinney, who recently said he had never experienced a period of greater strain on public services.
Inflation hit 10.1% in July, the highest rate since February 1982.
In response, the Highland Council seems ready to review its entire operation. The report outlines plans to move beyond recovery to a “post-pandemic workplace.” While Highland Council says it is aiming to avoid layoffs, it plans to reduce its workforce through natural turnover and “reprioritise an agile and flexible workforce”.
It’s likely to double down on any revenue-generating activities, perhaps charging for services that were previously free. Initiatives like a tourist tax could also provide much-needed cash.
At the same time, the board agrees that it needs to review its capital program. Many projects now look vulnerable – although details are yet to be agreed – and any contract over £1million will be subject to scrutiny.
Energy company lobbying
In addition to financial aid, the Highland Council hopes to demonstrate political strength. The SNP-Independent Coalition wants to work with the Scottish Government to encourage utility companies to offer better rates to social tenants.
The council’s own housing investment plans will be discussed at a special workshop for members next month. At the latest housing committee meeting, councilors in the Highlands pushed for faster heating and insulation measures to tackle the cost of living crisis. However, they were told that the industry could not meet the demand.
Council leader Raymond Bremner said the proposals tabled this week are intended to ‘help alleviate significant pressures affecting Highland households’.
However, the Liberal Democrat opposition tabled its own motion to address the cost of living crisis. Their far-reaching proposals include local “heat centres” on council premises, an emergency cost-of-living summit and intensive lobbying.
Councilor David Gregg, who is leading the motion, recently told the P&J that council had been too slow to respond to challenges. In response, Bremner urged parties of all political stripes to come to a common solution on Thursday.
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[Highland Council to discuss cost of living proposals]