THE future of Highland Council as Scotland knows will be on the line at the elections on Thursday.

The Conservatives have pledged to break the massive council area – which covers some 25,600 square kilometres – into smaller “locally accountable” authorities.

The Tories said Highland Council, which is currently run by an independent-led coalition which includes Labour and LibDems, was in need of “radical reform”.

The Conservative group, led by Andrew Jarvie, said the current administration was “failing to meet fairly the needs of all of the Highlands”.

They are fielding 21 candidates, which would not be enough to control the 74-seat council even if every candidate were to be returned.

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It is also unlikely the Tories will make such substantial gains, as they only returned 10 councillors in 2017 – up from the zero on which the party had sat since 1999.

However, in a local authority where independents are historically the largest group, cooperation is the name of the game. A motion on breaking up the Highland Council area, held in December 2021, failed to pass by only four votes.

Under the new council administration, which will need to be negotiated after the May 5 vote, there could be space for a potential majority in favour of the break up.

This potential is reinforced by the apparent cross-party appeal of the idea.

“No matter which party it is at Highland Council, I think we are all agreed that we need to look and see how it can be better,” Raymond Bremner, the SNP Highland group leader, told The National.

“Some areas are already unworkable in terms of reasonable representation. We are way out of kilter,” he says.

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“If you were to ask me personally, as a councillor for Caithness, when you are away from the main centre of governance then you feel detached, given that representation is often looked at in terms of the population spread.

“It can feel like flogging a dead horse trying to bring rural issues to other councillors’ attention. All of that needs reviewing without a shadow of a doubt.”

Greens councillor and candidate Pippa Hadley, who represents Badenoch and Strathspey, said she would support the breaking up of Highland Council as long as it was community-led and focused.

“You can’t have just one political party making sweeping changes,” she told The National. “I think they [the Tories] have downplayed the seriousness of breaking it up.

“I would support a community-led initiative but it would have to be from the community.

“I would like to see a manifesto about how they want to do it before I agree that it is good. Delivering for communities means putting them front and centre instead of using them as political pawns.”

She added: “If [the Conservatives] wanted to prove that they are local based and local focused they would be better off fielding candidates who live where they want to represent.”

The reference is to Tory group leader Jarvie and one of his councillors, Andrew Sinclair. The two – who currently represent Inverness South and Wick and East Caithness respectively – have switched constituencies for the upcoming elections despite the huge distances between them.

Asked if a break up of Highland Council could happen in the five years after the 2022 elections, Hadley said: “That entirely depends on the make-up of the new council.”

The idea that the Tories may have rushed through the idea in order to get a big pre-election story on the front page (which worked a treat) is one Bremner subscribes to.

The SNP councillor cautions that while there may be advantages to breaking up the council, it is not something which should be rushed.

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“Our group is committed to localism. We are committed to devolving spending, more budgetary control and input. In terms of the future, I think that there are a lot of things that can be done but sometimes I think there is an advantage if you have a bigger area.

“We don’t want to be 20 years down the line and have it be another failed experiment,” he says.

“We have also got to consider what’s within our gift. Highland Council can’t break itself up. That is something that the Scottish Government has said they will be looking at discussing with communities.”

It is often said that Highland covers the same area as Belgium. That European nation is actually slightly larger at 30,000 square kilometres, but Highland does cover more territory than many countries, including Israel, Slovenia, and Qatar.

Highland has a population of some 230,000 people, which is roughly ten times larger than that of Scotland’s island councils (Na h-Eileanan Siar, Orkney, and Shetland) and more than four times larger than the central belt’s Clackmannanshire (51,000 people).