Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Council plans will 'swamp' Peebles with 1,000 new houses


The proposed designation of development sites in and around Peebles which would be capable of accommodating around a thousand new houses will swamp the town and blight the lives of local residents, it has been claimed.

An 18-page paper which dissects and savages Scottish Borders Council's Main Issues Report [MIR] alleges secrecy in the preparation of the region's second Local Development Plan [LDP2) with no account taken of the town's creaking infrastructure which has schools at near capacity and the local cemetery virtually full.

The damning critique from Peebles Community Council is one of 330 responses to the MIR which the council will use to shape LDP2 later this year.

Not Just Sheep & Rugby has already brought readers details of a perceived threat from house building to Abbotsford, the stately home once inhabited by novelist and sheriff Sir Walter Scott. Here we present some of the issues contained in the Peebles CC submission signed by Les Turnbull, convener of the council's planning sub-committee.

At the outset, the community council say: "This response to the Main Issues Report (MIR) by Peebles Community Council has been informed by taking the views of many people who live in and around Peebles who feel strongly that their views and objections to these proposals need to be clearly heard to avoid the area becoming swamped with housing and blighting the lives of those who currently live here.

"Given that this consultation process is being carried out across the whole Borders region and affects so many communities, it is very surprising that the consultation process itself is not more transparent. Unlike the planning process where detailed plans can be found alongside other relevant comments and objections on the planning portal and open to scrutiny by all, this consultation process seems to be a private affair where officers receive the comments and then proceed to develop the next LDP." 

"What drives many of these concerns are some of the rather glib responses provided by officers during the public consultation events relating to the identification of sites for development and the issues of infrastructure. It was said in relation to long term proposals that we should not overly concern ourselves with these because any development on these sites will be at least 10-20 years away. And, this is the issue; once these sites have been accepted for long term development and included in a LDP, then these sites will remain acceptable for development in perpetuity."

The community council claims there is a great deal of concern that Peebles is expected to bear the brunt of development which should be spread across the whole of the Borders. There appeared to be a gross imbalance between proposals for Peebles and the remainder of the Borders which was unacceptable and contrary to Government policy.

Another section of the submission states: "Many of the comments made by attendees at localities meetings have centred upon the lack of infrastructure that exists now, and that is before any further development is contemplated. 

"Parents are anxious that schools, both primary and secondary, are very close to full capacity; they are concerned that further pupils will lead to overcrowding of schools to the detriment of current pupils. 

"Everyone in our community is concerned about the current state of health services, with the ability of the local health centre and the Borders General Hospital to cope with significant increases in patient numbers."

The response warns that If these long term proposals (for around 1,000 new homes) were allowed to be developed then there would be ribbon development down the Tweed Valley along the course of the A72. This type of development would be wrong in principle and wrong in practice. It would detract from the natural environment which was vitally important to the success of the area as a tourist destination.

"Before further sites for development are considered there needs to be a root and branch review of the infrastructure which is vital to the well-being of our town. This review must examine the issues of: • Schools capacity. • Health facilities, to include GP services and access to hospital services. • Social care. • Sewerage and drainage capacity. • Roads into and around the town, this must also include a full review of Tweed Bridge capacity and the ability of our streets to absorb more traffic.

"It should be noted that concerns already exist with regard to all these aspects of infrastructure need; any additional development will only exacerbate an already difficult situation."

 If, over the years, 1000 houses were delivered there would be at least 300 extra primary children and 250 secondary pupils. 

And referring to the other end of the human life span, the document comments: "In Peebles the current cemetery is nearing capacity, the Community Council has been raising this issue with elected Councillors for a considerable time; no response or plans are forthcoming. This situation in Peebles is becoming urgent, a solution needs to be found."

In conclusion Peebles CC tells SBC: "Those charged with developing the LDP2 and any successor plans must realise that the geography and topography of Peebles prevents any further wholesale development of the town. In addition, there must be recognition that the infrastructure needs of the town are not being met now, further development will only exacerbate an already fraught situation.

"This response contains many questions as to why, despite many indications to the contrary as discussed in this response, Peebles is being targeted for the majority of the Borders housing allocations."

"Of course there may be some smaller scale development on, as yet unidentified sites, but the opportunity for large scale development, in our view, is non-existent. Any significant expansion of Peebles will require more supermarkets, leisure facilities, health facilities and schools. There are no sites available within the town to accommodate such facilities. It seems utterly fatuous to consider expanding the town as outlined without considering how all of these needs can be met." 

Monday, 24 June 2019

'Jewel in Borders Crown' threatened by housing


Scottish Borders Council, which contributed £1.5 million towards the restoration of Abbotsford, novelist Sir Walter Scott's home by the banks of the Tweed, has come under fire from the mansion's trustees over the inclusion of a neighbouring housing site in planning proposals.

Abbotsford Trust chairman James Holloway, in a 10-page submission to SBC's planners, warns the development of suburban-style new homes at Netherbarns, a 20-acre site on the outskirts of Galashiels, will "crucially weaken future plans of Abbotsford to be recognised as a World Heritage site".

Netherbarns was listed as an Alternative Option for housing in the council's recently published Main Issues Report [MIR] setting out proposals for inclusion in the region's second Local Development Plan (LDP). This despite rejection of a scheme for 79 houses being rejected previously by Scottish Government Ministers because of the potential impact on Abbotsford, and an objection from Historic Scotland. A reduced density of housing failed to convince an Inquiry Reporter in 2014.

The MIR consultation exercise attracted 330 responses which are now publicly available on SBC's website. Names and personal details have been redacted from the paperwork in many cases. At least a dozen of the submissions attack the planned resurrection of  potential development at Netherbarns which is owned by a Kelso building company.

Among the many responses is a 124-page document from planning consultants Lichfields representing builders M & J Ballantyne. They claim additional tree planting and careful positioning of the houses would remove any visual threat to the outstanding landscapes around Scott's former residence.

According to Lichfields: "The site has received almost continuous support from officers and members of Scottish Borders Council who collectively recognise its planning merit and the contribution that it could make to the delivery of family homes in Galashiels."

And the consultants claim: "Assuming between 12 – 24 months to achieve the necessary consents including planning permission, roads construction consent and building warrants, the site could be delivered in full within the first five years of the plan period.

"This statement demonstrates that the site should not be considered as an ‘alternative’ option but ‘preferred’ due to the fact the site is immediately effective and due to lack of any ‘preferred’ housing sites in Galashiels." 

But in his response to the MIR Mr Holloway states: "The trust objects to the development of the Netherbarns site because the associated light, sound and visual intrusions will impact adversely on its [Abbotsford] heritage assets, historic setting and the cultural landscape of Sir Walter Scott and the Scottish Borders.

"The Trust strongly opposes the assumption that screening by trees will reduce the impact of the Netherbarns site. It believes that an adequate level of tree screening...one that protects the setting of Abbotsford from any new development....is unachievable on this site.

"The adverse impacts of the Netherbarns development will change the way nature is experienced at Abbotsford and will change's Scott's legacy for ever".

Mr Holloway's submission goes on to list six 'adverse effects' should Netherbarns be built on. One of them says: "Undermine the previous significant public investment in Abbotsford (£1.5 million by SBC itself) as a tourist destination". Abbotsford is claimed to be the Borders' most outstanding and internationally important tourist attraction.

In a hard hitting comment, the Trust's paper warns: "It would be ironic if, as we approach Scott's 250th anniversary and with the eyes of the nation upon us, diggers were to greet visitors across the Tweed.

"We hope we can forestall the site's inclusion in future LDPs by putting forward our case now and forever, on the detrimental impact of a development at Netherbarns on Abbotsford, the jewel in the crown of the Central Borders".

Sunday, 23 June 2019

Council 'legal advice' supplied by estate's own law firm


Scottish Borders Council relied on external legal advice provided by the offshore law firm acting for the owners of Lowood Estate, near Melrose before agreeing to buy the property using £9.6 million of taxpayers' money.

It has been confirmed the local authority did not seek independent opinions or arrange for their own legal searches as to the status and solvency of the two Cayman Islands companies they were negotiating with in a bid to buy Lowood for development purposes.

Instead, under a clause of the contract of purchase Grand Cayman-based solicitors Carey Olsen who were acting for Lowood Estates Ltd and Genesis Trust & Corporate Services Ltd, both also incorporated on the Caribbean island, carried out searches of local company registers then transmitted their Opinions on the two entities to SBC.

Once the deal was completed the council paid the law firm £3,100 for the work it had done.

All of this information has been uncovered via Freedom of Information [FOI] following a request for "information contained in all correspondence – reports, emails, minutes and any other paperwork – relating to the legal advice Scottish Borders Council sought and received from in-house lawyers and/or from private law firms during negotiations and prior to and following the conclusion of the purchase of Lowood Estate".

In its original response SBC claimed "Prior to the purchase of Lowood Estate, SBC sought external legal advice concerning the legal status of the owners of the Estate. Where a company owns property, it is standard conveyancing practice for the purchaser to check the status of the selling company. Where the seller is a UK registered company, this is done through a search at Companies House. In this case, the property was owned by two companies registered abroad, and accordingly advice was sought from solicitors based in the appropriate jurisdiction."

At this stage the council did not refer to the fact that advice had come from the sellers' law agent.

SBC also supplied as part of their FOI response copies of two Opinions dated December 5th 2018 relating to the owners of Lowood. Each 14-page document makes it clear the Opinion "is given only on the laws of the Cayman Islands". And Carey Olsen go on to state: " We do not give any opinion on the commercial merits of any transaction contemplated or entered into under or pursuant to the Documents."

And the Opinion goes on to make clear: "This Opinion (and any obligations arising out of or in connection with it) is given on the basis that it shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of the Cayman Islands. By relying on the opinions set out in this Opinion the addressee(s) hereby irrevocably agree(s) that the courts of the Cayman Islands are to have exclusive jurisdiction to settle any disputes which may arise in connection with this Opinion."

Following release of this information Scottish Borders Council was contacted and asked "The documents attached to your response are in relation to legal opinions given by Carey Olsen, lawyers based in Grand Cayman. I also requested copies of “legal advice sought” by the council, so would respectfully ask again for information contained in documents generated by SBC in its requests for the paperwork it received from Carey Olsen. In other words, what was specifically asked for from the Cayman-based lawyers?"

This time the Borders local authority wrote: "Our original response states that SBC sought external advice on the legal status of the Cayman island sellers. We did not however, seek this advice directly, but rather it was a condition of our contract with the sellers that this advice be provided. SBC were not involved in the request for the opinions, which were received by the seller’s solicitors and forwarded on to us in terms of the contract of purchase."

An extract from the contract of purchase, attached to the final reply, reads: "Legal Opinions – The seller shall provide to the purchaser prior to completion, legal opinions from Carey Olsen in respect of [1] Lowood Estates Ltd. and [2] Genesis Trust & Corporate Services Ltd both companies registered under the laws of the Cayman Islands and each having their registered office formerly at Genesis Building, Grand Cayman, and now at Elgin Court, PO Box 448 Elgin Avenue, George Town, Grand Cayman, and in each case said opinion shall disclose nothing prejudicial to the seller’s ability to enter into the Missives or deliver the Disposition in accordance with clause 10.1. The cost of the opinion shall be the responsibility of the Purchaser in accordance with Clause 24."

A legal expert who was shown the FOI responses commented: "“Are you honestly telling me the council did not commission this legal advice - that the sellers did, and they made the Council pay for it?

“If the legal advice happened to be flawed SBC couldn't do anything about it, as the council is not the client in terms of who commissioned the legal advice - (they have already admitted to this when they revealed they had not sought the Opinions directly)”

Tuesday, 18 June 2019

Council's huge spend on 'golden goodbyes'


There was a 298% increase in the cost of staff exit packages at Scottish Borders Council in 2018/19 with three of the twelve 'golden goodbyes' accounting for £401,000 of taxpayers' cash.

The massive rise in spending to allow employees to leave early is outlined in a set of unaudited accounts which will be considered by members of SBC's Audit & Scrutiny Committee next week.

Figures show £153,699 was spent on just five packages in 2017/18 compared to £613,042 on the dozen packages agreed in the last financial year. Three individuals each received between £100,000 and £150,000 before leaving their jobs.

The highly controversial acquisition of the Lowood Estate, near Melrose - SBC shelled out £11 million including costs - in December does not rate a separate mention in the 124-page accounts document even though a management commentary lists highlights and achievements.

In a foreword to the accounts, council leader Shona Haslam says: "During 2018/19 Scottish Borders Council has achieved significantly higher financial plan savings than ever before whilst maintaining frontline services for communities wherever possible with £16.4 million delivered in year, £11.7 million permanently. Capital investment in the area is also significantly higher than that in 2017/18 with £47.8 million invested in schools, flood protection, roads, lighting and other assets."

Councillor Haslam continues: "Plans for 2019/20 - the launch of a revised 5 years programme of transformation across the Council – called ‘Fit for 2024’. This programme has the aim of delivering a Council that is adaptable, efficient and effective, and one ultimately capable of not only meeting the challenges ahead, but of fully optimising outcomes for the citizens and communities for which it is responsible. During the period from 2013/14 to 2018/19 the Council’s approach to longer term financial planning has delivered savings of £47 million alongside significant improvements in performance."

The report to members says on revenue spending that the actual out turn for the financial year 2018/19 was a revenue expenditure of £257.5 million representing a net under-spend of £1.302 million against the revised budget. But a later section says: “These accounting adjustments result in an overall Deficit on the Provision of Council Services for the year of £11.0 million.”

SBC's outstanding external debt as at 31 March 2019 was £199 million. Additional long term borrowing was undertaken during the year amounting to £10 million, with £8 million of this new borrowing used for the early repayment of two existing loans. Short term borrowing of £5 million outstanding from the 2017/18 year end was repaid in April 2018 with no further requirement for short term borrowing during the 2018/19 year. The average rate of interest paid on outstanding external debt was 4.79%.

A management commentary concludes: "The operating environment for the Council continues to be very challenging with financial and economic influences such as increasing demands on services, reducing Scottish Government funding, low interest rates and cost pressures from pay and price inflation all affecting the Council’s finances. The Council, despite these challenges, remains financially sound and well placed to serve the people of the Scottish Borders in the future."

Other noteworthy entries at a glance:

Contingent liabilities

*There has been a European Court of Justice ruling relating to workers annual leave payment entitlement. The financial implications of this judgement for Scottish Borders Council are unclear at present and therefore this has been included as a contingent liability in this years` annual accounts.

*Legal action has been raised against the Council in respect of a failure to conclude a land sale transaction. The matter is subject to ongoing process in the Court of Session.

Contingent assets

*During 2016/17 a claim was lodged against Capita Plc by Dumfries and Galloway Council on behalf of itself and Scottish Borders Council for additional expenditure incurred by both Councils due to the delay in the rollout of broadband network and ICT infrastructure across the Scottish Borders and Dumfries and Galloway. This claim is still on-going.

*The European Commission issued a decision which found that European truck manufacturers had engaged in price fixing and other cartel activities over a 14 year period between 1997 and 2011 in relation to trucks over six tonnes. Scottish Borders Council is joining with other Scottish Local Authorities and public bodies to raise legal actions seeking compensation for losses it has suffered as a result of this illegal activity.

*Payments required in 2019/20 in respect of three PPI schools - £10.999 million

*Interest payable on loans in 20/1819 - £14.366 million (up from £11.681 million in 2017/18).

*Number of staff earning more than £50,000 per annum in 2018/19 - 136 (up from 125 in 2017/18).

A notice posted on the council's website advises members of the public how they can object to the annual accounts which are due to be audited by Audit Scotland, the local authority's external auditors, for a fee of £275,000.

The notice states: "Any person interested may object to the accounts or to any part of the accounts by sending their objection in writing, together with a statement of the grounds of the objection, to the appointed auditors, Audit Scotland, 4th Floor, 102 West Port, Edinburgh, EH3 9DN no later than Monday 22nd July, sending a copy of that objection and statement to the Chief Financial Officer at Council Headquarters, Newtown St Boswells, TD6 0SA.
"Where any person objects to the accounts the Auditors shall, if requested by that person, or the Council or by any officer of the Council who may be concerned, afford an opportunity of appearing before and being heard by the Auditor with respect to that objection. Any person or officer may appear and be heard personally or by a representative."

Monday, 17 June 2019

Is 70% increase in Tweed salmon catches just a coincidence?


Reports of a sharp increase in salmon and sea trout catches by anglers on the world-famous Tweed fishing beats have coincided with the closure of drift net fisheries in North-east England which were accused of intercepting salmon heading for Scottish rivers.

After a 2018 season described as woeful and abysmal - many fishing days lay unbooked due to the lack of fish - the publication of figures for the early months of 2019 reveal a 73% rise in the number of salmon hooked so far with a 148% increase in sea trout caught.

The statistics can be found on the Tweedbeats website which supports and promotes angling on the Borders river.

According to the latest returns reported by Tweedbeats: "Tweed’s rod catch last week [ending June 15th], representing by far the best week of the season despite being just 3 or 4 proper days fishing for most, because of flooding on Thursday, was 181 salmon and 79 sea trout, making the totals for the 2019 season 1,367 salmon and 281 sea trout (all within 90% accuracy). For comparison, the totals to the same date in 2018 were 788 salmon and 113 sea trout."

The angling interests here in Scotland and further afield had campaigned for at least four decades to have the 'destructive' drift netting fisheries of Northumberland closed down.

It finally happened this year which meant the 30 or so licensed netsmen who should have been operating off the north-east coast from April to August are not around. The closure of the fishery brought to an end 150 years of activity by the drift nets.

Figures published by the Environment Agency record catches of 9,157 salmon by the drift net fishery in 2017, a sharp fall from the total of 18,824 in 2016.

At the same time the nets are said to have accounted for 35,146 sea trout in 2017 and 38,863 in the previous season. The combined value of the 2017 haul by the 30 licencees was an estimated £29,114. Statistics for 2018 - the last year of activity by the netters - are expected soon.

there was widespread jubilation across the angling world when the demise of drift netting in the north-east was finally confirmed after a number of false alarms during the last decade.

According to the River Tweed Commissioners, administrators of salmon fishing in the Scottish Borders: "Genetic work has shown that 70% of Salmon caught in the nets are of Scottish origin, demonstrating just how mixed, and damaging, the Drift Net fishery’s catch was – and how many fish it prevented from reaching their home rivers.”

"With Tweed seeing much depleted Salmon stocks at present – as are many other rivers – it is hoped that the closure of the nets off our coast will help provide more fish with a chance to return to the river to spawn.”

And the Commissioners added that The Environment Agency was introducing these restrictions on fishing in England in response to the international decline in migratory salmon stocks.

Salmon stock numbers were currently among the lowest on record and below sustainable levels in many rivers. 

"The byelaws will become law on the 1st January 2019 and, in addition to the closure of the Drift Nets for Salmon fishing,  will see the introduction of mandatory catch and release on ‘At Risk’ and ‘Recovering Rivers’ rivers from next June and renewal of the 1998 Spring Salmon Byelaws to protect early running Salmon", explained the Commissioners' spokesperson.

There was a very different reaction from the netsmen who relied on salmon and sea trout for a significant percentage of their income.

An article in Fishing News in August 2018 declared: ".The recreational salmon angling sector has applied pressure on the commercial salmon fishery for decades, maintaining that netsmen are one of the main reasons for reducing numbers of migratory fish – salmon and sea trout – returning to their rivers of birth to spawn.

"Netsmen say they are just a convenient scapegoat. They say their small-scale, tightly controlled and limited fishery is insignificant when viewed against the huge area of the North Sea and out into the North Atlantic, and against the loss of fish to the constantly increasing number of predatory seals that kill unknown numbers of salmon and sea trout along the coast and in river estuaries annually."

Ned Clark, chairman of NFFO North East, told Fishing News “These salmon and trout fisheries have formed the cornerstone of inshore fisheries on the northeast coast of England for generations, and the fact that they have survived for this long is a testament not only to the sustainability of these fisheries, but also to the tenacity and fortitude of the remaining fishermen in fighting to retain their rights to fish in the face of overwhelming political pressure to permanently close their fisheries."

The owners of the salmon fishing beats on Tweed will no doubt be hoping the significant improvement in catches during the opening four-and-a-half months of 2019 will be maintained throughout the rest of the season which closes at the end of November.

Thursday, 13 June 2019

Top brass accused of attack on FOI


The associations representing local government lawyers and chief executives stand accused of trying to weaken Freedom of Information legislation in Scotland by seeking to amend the threshold governing 'vexatious' requests.

In a joint submission to a Scottish Parliament committee which is reviewing the FOI system, the societies of lawyers and administrators, and chief executives also point to the high cost of investigating and responding to requests, call for an extension to the 20-day period allowed for responses, and claim information has been misused on occasions.

Critics, and campaigners for greater transparency by public authorities say the submission is an attempt to undermine the system which has opened up local government to greater public scrutiny. But the lawyers and chief officers maintain their response to the call for evidence is an attempt to make the system work better for all users.

The document lodged with the Public Audit Committee at Holyrood states: "On the downside we think the resource implications for local authorities in complying with this legislation have been significantly underestimated. No additional resources were made available to implement this legislation so all the resources required to comply have had to be diverted from other front line services.

"We are also concerned about what could be seen as misuse of the legislation by commercial sector actors, such as companies asking for staff contact details simply to send marketing emails or seeking commercial opportunities, both of which are irrelevant and pointless for public sector bodies subject to European procurement rules. 

"We are also conscious that authorities occasionally have to deal with highly disgruntled individuals who will pursue any avenue of complaint open to them regardless of the merits of their case, and FOI has created another such route for these individuals, some of whom use FOI as a weapon to punish local authorities for supposed misdeeds."

This powerful lobby group add that the resource implications of FOISA have not been adequately addressed (or indeed, addressed at all). This factor is compounded by the fees regulations which impose what is now an artificially low cap on the amount of staff time which can be charged for. The staff who routinely have to deal with FOI requests (and particularly the sensitive and/or high profile requests) typically cost authorities significantly more than £15 per hour to employ. The fees regulations are effectively pointless in practice. 

"In terms of misuse of the legislation, we appreciate that from the perspective of some applicants they will genuinely believe they are victims of misconduct which they are seeking to expose, but a review of the current very high threshold for declaring a request to be vexatious would be welcome", adds the submission.

"We have also noticed an increasing tendency for MSPs and their researchers to use FOI as a means of acquiring information from local authorities. We would hope that positive and trusting relationships between different parts of the public sector would make recourse to FOI by MSPs and their researchers unnecessary."

The paper repeats the request for a more flexible regime for dealing with vexatious requests and a more realistic approach to fees and charging.

"We also feel that it would be helpful for authorities to be able to extend the timescale for compliance under FOISA for particularly complex cases, as is currently the case under the EIRs (and also for subject access requests under GDPR). We do not think this provision would be abused as our experience is that the extension provisions under the EIRs are only used very rarely."

In conclusion the local government leaders say: "The organisations who have submitted this response are at the forefront of turning the legislative ambitions for FOI into the reality of stakeholders actually receiving information (or the reason why they cannot have that information). We strongly support the retention of comprehensive freedom of information laws to support transparency and inclusiveness agendas. The comments made above are intended to make FOI work better for the majority of people using the legislation as intended by the Scottish Parliament."

Carole Ewart, of The Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland, told the investigative media website The Ferret: "We oppose all attempts to diminish the right of people to enforce transparency and accountability in elected government in Scotland. Within local authorities there needs to be a change in culture and practice so that far more information is pro-actively published and jobs are created to process FoI requests lawfully.”

Bad debt written off by council rises by 170%


Leading members of Scottish Borders Council will be told next week the value of write-offs of irrecoverable debt on outstanding council tax,business rates and other unpaid bills rocketed  from £259,000 to £702,000 in the space of twelve months.

The loss of revenue to the local authority represents a dramatic 171% rise in write-offs during the 2018/19 financial year compared to the figure for 2017/18.

Statistics relating to the lost cash are contained in a report prepared by a team of finance officers at SBC, now available on the council's website. The document will be considered by the Executive Committee when it meets next Tuesday.

The report explains: "As required by the Financial Regulations, this report details the aggregate amounts of debt written off during 2018/19 under delegated authority. The report covers the areas of Council Tax, Non-Domestic Rates, Sundry Debtors, Housing Benefit Over-payments and aged debt from the balance sheet.

"The total value of write-offs increased from £0.259 million in 2017/18 to £0.702 million in 2018/19.There are ongoing risks associated with the management of the Council’s debts and these may lead to an increase in the level of debts that may require to be written off as irrecoverable in future years.

"Financial Regulations give the Chief Financial Officer authority to write-off individual irrecoverable debts up to £100,000. Any debt in excess of £100,000 may only be written off as irrecoverable following approval by the Executive Committee. No write-offs have fallen into this category in 2018/19."

The amount of council tax written off in each of the last three financial years was £164,000 in 2016/17, £39,000 the following year, and £433,000 in 2018/19.

Meanwhile sundry debt write-offs which totalled £49,000 and £133,000 in the two previous fiscal years, amounted to £218,000 last year.

Finance officials say in the report: "In all cases, a debt will only be written off when at least one of the following occurs:  Legislation prevents its recovery;  It is uneconomic to pursue;  The Debtor becomes insolvent;  All options of recovery have been exhausted, which includes the use of the Council’s Legal team and the Sheriff Officers, (Walker Love);  After a professional assessment of the debt concludes that recovery is unlikely. For example, if Sheriff Officers advise that there are no assets, or the debtor has left the area and cannot be traced."

An explanation is also offered for the huge rise in lost council tax revenues in 2018/19: "The value of Council Tax write offs processed within 2018/19 has increased significantly in comparison to last year. In 2017/18 the amount written off was unusually low as a result of a reduced number of cases being processed but also a reduction in the individual case value.

"It was also affected by the prioritisation of newer, rather than aged. It was expected that the level of write offs would increase significantly in 2018/19 as a result of addressing the backlog of cases to be cleared and ensuring ongoing works were maintained. The highest value of write-offs for Council Tax in 2018/19 continues to be within the category where the liable party has become insolvent. The number of cases increased from 191 in 2017/18 to 533 in 2018/19 although some of these cases would have become insolvent in 2017/18."

The number of council tax transactions written off increased from 871 to 7298.
Reason for write off – deceased cases increased from 68 to 631. No forwarding address  67 to 340; insolvency 191 to 533.

"Write-offs for Sundry Debt continued at a higher rate in 2018/19 as the Council continues to encounter difficulties in recovering social care debt and liquidations/sequestrations. The amount of Sundry Debt currently owed to the Council, and deemed to be at risk, presently stands at £1.7 million. The Bad Debt Provision currently stands at £1.1 million. To mitigate against this possible shortfall in provision, a further £150,000 has been added to the provision from the 2018/19 out-turn. This is consistent with the level of debt considered to be at high risk of non-recovery."