There have been more twists and turns in the council’s attempts to close two-thirds of their frontline service points, then an Agatha Christie novel. Despite a long and often ill-tempered (that temper mainly emanating from the Deputy Leader of the Council) debate at last week’s full council meeting, we are still no clearer about the real outcome. All we know is there could be 23 different victims.
The ruling coalition simply pushed through a plan for a small group of councillors to decide the fate of each service point on a case-by-case basis. It was a vain attempt to avoid any further bad publicity from their incompetent handling of this review. No doubt they thought the closure programme, would go through without too much problem. Instead they were caught like a murderer, mid-crime, and fled the scene. Returning with a cobbled together amendment as an alibi, they now try to claim a 15-month period of consultation with local communities is a triumph for democracy. Consultation normally means you ask people their views before you draw up your proposals and make a decision. The current Highland Council fails nearly every time on consultation, as we have seen with the fare increases on the Corran Ferry.
The immediate threat to the council’s network of service points may have gone, but the long-term threat of closure still remains, with confusion about whether an outreach service will be introduced or what alternative arrangements for those that require face-to-face contact are in place. There was no assessment of how we can move administration functions out of big expensive central offices to a more local level; you don’t need to process forms and other paperwork in Inverness.
Along with other independent colleagues, I argued that no service points should close at this stage. Not because the network shouldn’t change, but because there was no robust plan for alternatives and many of the suggestions made by the administration remained unplanned and uncosted. Yes, technology is changing the way we access public services, but there will always be circumstances where we need to provide old-fashioned help and support, I suspect the service-point network will remain the cheapest and most efficient way of providing that service.