MORE than 50 people - including councillors, council officers and members of the public - turned out to attend a public consultation session in Strichen last week.
The event was the third and final session in a series of public consultations on council spending priorities for the coming years.
Among those in attendance were leader of Aberdeenshire Council Jim Gifford, deputy leader Martin Kitts-Hayes and council chief executive Colin Mackenzie. Central Buchan, Troup and Fraserburgh and District councillors also attended, as well as service directors and area managers.
Jim Gifford opened the evening before handing over to Colin Mackenzie who delivered a presentation.
Mr Mackenzie outlined the council’s role in delivering Scottish Government policy - including community planning, integration of health and social care, and police and fire reform. He then went on to explain the local authority’s financial position, saying the council anticipated financial challenges for the next 20 years.
In meeting those financial challenges, Mr Mackenzie commented that the council, which currently employs 14,400 people, had reduced it’s staffing levels by 1,000 employees over the last three years. He spelled out the council’s wide-ranging set of priorities, including roads, tourism, rolling out broadband, public transport and completing Fraserburgh’s new sports and community facility.
Those attending the consultation were shown statistics from public opinion polling which is undertaken regularly to gauge public attitudes towards the council. The polling showed over 80% of people saying they were satisfied with the services Aberdeenshire Council provides, but a lower proportion (60%) saying they believed the council takes account of residents’ views.
Mr Mackenzie also set out the Aberdeenshire Alliance’s priorities, as well as the changes and challenges facing the council in 2013/2014.
Following the presentation, those attending the meeting were asked to undertake group work in which they were asked to consider what actions could be taken to maintain and improve services in Aberdeenshire and their local area.
The group work illicited a wide range of ideas and responses, with priorities including improving communication between the council and the public, activities for young people, celebrating local successes, improving broadband coverage, stronger links between the council and harbour boards, roads, town centre regeneration, improving links between small firms and improved strategic planning.
The Q&A which followed also covered a variety of issues, starting with the council finances. One member of the audience asked if there would be a £23m underspend this year. Cllr Jim Gifford confirmed this would be the case.
Colin Mackenzie tried to alleviate these concerns, saying: “We’ve been spending 98p out of every pound.”
A second questioner asked about the quality of the roads at Ardallie. Other members of the audience and the council officials also discussed the problems caused by excess water on rural roads, flooding, drainage and the effect of agricultural vehicles on the roads.
Doreen Mair, chair of FISSH, asked: “There is an Economic Development department, but is there an Economic Regeneration department?”
Ms Mair also raised the possibility of whether a new hotel could come to Fraserburgh as part of wider economic regeneration efforts.
Colin Mackenzie replied: “We tried to attract hotel groups but we couldn’t attract a decent hotel group. How do you create the demand?”
Banff and Buchan area manager Margaret-Jane Cardno added: “There are a lot of groups who want to work together. We are in the process of creating a regeneration plan.”
Further questions raised included the importance of council underspend monies to groups and organisations, the uncertainties faced by the voluntary sector, superfast broadband in rural areas, sheltered housing provision and the Curriculum for Excellence.
The meeting, which had been well-mannered throughout, ended on a noisier note, with the issue of wind turbines and windfarms stirring a short but heated debate.
Jim Gifford brought the evening to a close, commenting that the Strichen consultation had been the most well-attended of the three public events held over the autumn/winter period.