Sunday, 29 June 2014

Affordable housing...can we afford it?

Regular readers of these ramblings from the Borders will know that local statistics on homelessness recently showed the number of applications for help have risen sharply over the last two years, in defiance of the national downward trend in most of the rest of Scotland.

The latest revelation that the number of 'affordable' homes completed in the Scottish Borders Council (SBC) area in 2013/14 fell well below the required level will have done little to ease the problems of those classed as homeless and will have frustrated the efforts of the housing sector to bring about improvements in the supply of social accommodation.

A Borders housing strategy prepared by the council estimated our region would need 564 new homes in each of the five years from 2012 to 2017, including 103 in the so-called 'affordable' category. That figure represented a significant increase on the 81 social sector completions in each of the preceding five years.

But a mere 72 completions were achieved in 2013/14, according to a performance report from the council. Now SBC, which ceased to become a housing authority in 2003 and hadn't built a single council house from its formation in 1996, is to lead a housebuilding programme for 2014 to increase supply.

The 2003 sale of its 6,700 tenanted houses to Scottish Borders Housing Association means the council, together with five other local authorities who chose the stock transfer option, is not eligible for Scottish Government grant funding worth, in total, some £80 million. This enabled local authorities to build almost 3,300 new homes in a single year.

Meanwhile Scotland's Registered Social Landlords (RSL), including four Borders-based organisations, are finding it more difficult to borrow from the private sector to pay for housing programmes. Between them the 162 RSLs in Scotland have combined borrowings of £3.5 billion and are making interest payments of £120 million each year.

The increased cost of borrowing is said to be having a detrimental impact on the ability of RSLs to deliver sufficient numbers of affordable homes. So an increasing number of councils have been seeking permission from Scottish Ministers to borrow substantial amounts of cash to be "on-lended" to housing associations.

Loans totalling £13 million from SBC to local landlords are expected to pay for 160 homes for rent in several communities. And there could be more of this type of arrangement in future following a Scottish Government Finance Circular which means local authorities will not need to seek the permission of Ministers to on-lend to RSLs for affordable housing projects.

The sale of Borders council houses barely a decade ago resulted in the UK Treasury wiping out the £81 million of loan debt owed to the Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) which financed their construction in the first place.

Now the resources of the PWLB are required to solve the latest Borders housing problems, and a council with no houses has been arranging the loans on behalf of third parties. We must hope there is a positive outcome for all concerned.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Tweedbank and trains... the prequel

A few minutes after posting my last epistle on the subject of hubs and powerhouses I experienced an unexpected bout of deja vu: a strong feeling that the words I'd penned about railways and Tweedbank may well have appeared in print in the dim and distant past.

The uncertainty this planted in my mind kept niggling away. Should I remove my offering from cyberspace via the delete button? Had I just plagiarised another writer's work and claimed it as my own? I wrestled with my conscience, hoping against hope that I had not committed such a heinous "crime".

Then, suddenly, in a flash, everything became crystal clear as my often faulty memory took me back 44 years to a time when Tweedbank and trains were the main topics for a House of Commons adjournment debate soon after Dr. Beeching's cruel axe fell on the Waverley line, and the Tweedbank scheme was beset by legal wrangling, Court of Session actions and public inquiries.

In those days Tweedbank was described as a trigger rather than a hub or a powerhouse. The numbers living in the Borders had been decreasing for decades so the experts came up with a plan to bring 25,000 extra souls into the counties of Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles to redress the population imbalance.

A Government White Paper published in 1966 contained proposals for a thousand houses and associated factories in the centre of David Steel's sprawling rural constituency. But the trigger to Central Borders prosperity could not be activated until the developers grabbed a large parcel of farmland near Melrose belonging to Ian and Constance Hamilton.

The Hamiltons were very unwilling sellers, and put up a strong and costly fight to hang on to their farm. Hence the aforementioned lawsuits and public inquiries which dragged on for years.

Tweedbank was afforded top priority status by local councillors and their officials, all of them keen to pull that trigger. But the issue appears to have been a mere sideshow for Westminster's politicians. Mr Steel and his fellow Borders MP John Mackintosh had to wait until fifteen minutes to midnight on 20 July 1970 to have their say. I'm willing to bet there were few honourable members in the chamber to hear our region's cry for help.

The young Mr Steel had been re-elected to Parliament a few weeks earlier after surviving numerous re-counts at a nail-biting counting of the votes in Jedburgh town hall. And Edward Heath, an advocate of development hubs in Central Scotland and on Tyneside rather than investment for rural areas, was the new Prime Minister.

"I wanted to know whether the Government regarded themselves as still committed to the Tweedbank Scheme", said Mr Steel. "No-one with any sense of public responsibility or social conscience could fail to recognise the need to get ahead with the development and to allow no further obstruction."

Mr Steel had played a major part in the unsuccessful campaign to prevent the closure of the Waverley rail line in 1969. He warned that if the railway formation land was sold off piecemeal, there would never again be any possible future use for this through route in the Borders region.

Now the northern section of the railway is about to be reinstated after costly compulsory purchase, and there's even talk of extending the line as far as Hawick, then on to Carlisle.

At midnight in the Commons, all those years ago, we almost had the first reference to Tweedbank as a hub or a powerhouse, but not quite.

George Younger, newly appointed Under Secretary of State for Scotland, declared: "The concept of a growth point in the central Borders is very much in our mind, and I can say without equivocation that we accept Tweedbank as the place most likely to succeed in this respect. Indeed, we want to see Tweedbank come about, and that as quickly as possible".

But the Minister went on to caution that Tweedbank should not be seen as the panacea to cure all of the Borders economic ills.

Mr Younger said: "It is essential that provision for the future should not stop short with Tweedbank and nothing else. It is perhaps not surprising that one tends to be mesmerised into thinking that Tweedbank is the beginning and end of Border development.Of course, it is nothing of the kind."

I thought those words sounded familiar, hence that recent uncomfortable feeling of deja vu. Will today's Tweedbank hub makers pay heed to a warning delivered 44 years ago or are they already mesmerised?

Tweedbank and trains: with us in 1970 and still hogging the headlines in 2014.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Hubbub over hubs and powerhouses

For long enough now those of us living north of Watford have complained bitterly that London and the south-east of England sucks the economic life out of the rest of the United Kingdom.

But it hasn't prevented successive Westminster Governments from concentrating capital investment, job creation, and all other forms of development in and around the capital city. None of the politicians have even tried to reduce London's magnetic pull, content to leave the rest of England, Scotland and Wales to their own devices.

So it came as a bit of a shock to me this week when Chancellor Osborne declared in a speech: "The powerhouse of London dominates more and more. And that's not healthy for our economy. It's not good for our country".

Mr Osborne's solution? To create what he called a northern powerhouse by linking together a number of cities in the north of England to provide jobs, opportunities and security for local citizens.

A flawed solution surely, for another buzzing metropolis will simply drain the lifeblood from communities not close enough to benefit, and that would include Scotland.

Perhaps we should become an independent nation before the Manchester-Leeds collection of super cities with its High Speed 2 connection starts to fire on all cylinders. But wait a minute, would that not mean an even bigger Central Belt of Scotland hub than we have now with the Glasgow-Edinburgh axis swallowing up even more of the meagre resources at the Scottish Government's disposal.

Hubs and powerhouses do more harm than good, or so it seems. Here in the Borders our collection of small towns and attractive villages get along fine without a hub although we appear to be in danger of having one, like it or not.

The policy makers are trying hard to create some kind of powerhouse at Tweedbank where a new train station will mark the southern end of the Borders railway line, due for completion in 2015.

There is talk of a Central Borders Business Park linked to the railhead with the creation of between 1,000 to 2,300 jobs over the next 15 years. The majority of new house-building could also take place in close proximity.

A report on the likely impact of the railway's return says: "The potential demand for high quality premises means Tweedbank would be a natural location for development and industry.

The business park will require £5 million of investment, and it's claimed the most effective way to deliver new employment land opportunities is to redevelop parts, or all, of the existing Tweedbank industrial estate. Many of the properties in this area are now due for replacement or major renovation.

The master plan includes the acquisition of key parts of the existing industrial area from the private sector. Planning and development officials believe: "This is an opportunity to create a flagship development on an attractive, high amenity site."

Tweedbank's status as a hub could be enhanced still further by another £5 million project aimed at bringing the Great Tapestry of Scotland to a permanent home by the railway station.

The close links with Galashiels, already the retail capital of the Borders and a place which seems to receive the lion's share of local investment, could well create a mini-powerhouse in the heart of our region to the detriment of communities situated more than ten miles away.

Is there a danger that the fragile prosperity of Hawick, or Eyemouth, Jedburgh, Kelso or Peebles could be syphoned off by the hub in our midst? It is an issue worth thinking about before we rush headlong into adopting George Osborne's solution for our economic ills..

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Borders council in the transfer market again!

Borders social care services - designed to serve some of the most vulnerable members of society - are set to become the latest segment of our local government set-up to be dismantled by councillors who seem more than keen on the concept of arms length companies and transferring assets to autonomous bodies.

As we have already pointed out in these columns, there was little hesitation when it came to selling off 6,700 Borders council houses for half their book value in 2003. Then the council could not wait to get rid of sports and leisure facilities to a Trust. And the arrangements which will see libraries, museums and halls leaving direct council control are all but done and dusted.

Now it is the turn of the Social Work department to feel the heat of reform following a £20,000 consultants' report which warns: "Doing nothing is not an option".

This week our councillors have been digesting the contents of the report together with a confidential business case recommending the transfer of over 1,000 staff and an annual budget close to £18 million to an arms length company known as a Limited Liability Partnership (LLP).

The services involved relate principally to older people. Because so many Borders residents are living longer there is expected to be an eleven per cent increase in the demands of the over-65s by 2019. But impoverished Scottish Borders Council needs to reduce its social work budget by £5.6 million during the same time frame.

A list of valued services up for transfer includes residential homes for the elderly, day care, home care, extra care housing, night support and the Bordercare alarm system. Day services for those with learning difficulties and for individuals with mental health issues and physical disabilities will also switch to the LLP.

The report promises that staff would transfer to the new company on the same terms and conditions they have with the council, but work practices would be likely to change. What those changes might involve has not been outlined in the published report.

Care & Health Solutions, the Wolverhampton-based consultants commissioned by the council, have already been involved in a number of similar LLP projects, notably in Aberdeen and the south of England. Their report for Borders councillors is accompanied with a warning of the risks involved in adopting the LLP model.

"If the organisation should fail or if the council wanted out that risk is mitigated by the fact that the council owns the company", the report says. Should the LLP fail to perform satisfactorily or should it run into financial trouble then it could easily be brought back under full council control or "a controlled transfer to the private market".

No doubt critics of this latest cost-cutting exercise will warn of 'privatisation by the back door' and complain about the stress and upheaval for dedicated staff as the new regime beds in. But remember, just like the housing stock, the sports facilities and the cultural services..."doing nothing is not an option".

Limited Liability Partnerships are not covered by Freedom of Information legislation, so concerned or inquisitive members of the public will be unable to ask questions about the new company once it is up and running, probably in March 2015..

However, a monitoring group of councillors will meet four times a year to asses the LLP's performance. So that's all right then.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Homelessness..Borders bucks the trend

While Scotland as a whole recorded an eight per cent reduction in applications under homeless legislation in 2013/14, the numbers seeking assistance in the Scottish Borders increased for the second year in a row, and now exceed 1996/97 levels.

When last year's statistics on homelessness were published by the Scottish Government they showed a massive 17 per cent hike in Borders application from 542 in 2011/12 to 638. At the same time the national numbers tumbled by 13 per cent.

But when the Border Telegraph reported the local figures on 12 August 2013, the Galashiels-based weekly paper was told by Scottish Borders Council: "the statistics indicated a much higher homelessness rate than is actually the reality". Apparently, the council had changed its approach with the introduction of a dedicated prevention team in 2011, and there had also been alterations to the authority's IT system in terms of how statistics were "drawn down".

There were also claims from social housing landlords that they were working in partnership with the council to increase the supply of affordable housing and reduce homelessness.

So it will be interesting to hear the explanation for this year's six per cent increase in applications from 638 to 673. The equivalent number for 1996/97 was 639.

In 24 of Scotland's 32 council areas the number of applications fell, and the increase in the Borders figure was the fourth highest in the country.

The number of assessments made by the council's homelessness service also increased rapidly from 402 in 2011/12 to 496 in 2012/13 and up again to 560 in 2013/14. These percentage increases in assessments were 23% and 13% respectively while Scotland's total of assessments went down from 35,708 to 29,326 in the same period.

Meanwhile the number of Borders households living in temporary accommodation also increased slightly from 89 in March 2013 to 94 in March of this year.

The housing charity Shelter Scotland warns there are growing signs of affordable housing shortages in the Scottish Borders area.There were 11,843 social rented sector homes in the region in 2012/13. But Shelter adds: "Right to Buy resulted in the loss of 1,055 affordable homes in the ten years from 2003 to 2013. Scottish Borders needs more affordable homes". Shelter also points out that 31,000 properties in the area fail the Scottish Housing Quality Standard.

Councillors surrendered their control of rented housing in 2003 when 6,700 homes with a book value of £56 million were transferred to a housing association for £23 million.

Five years later a report from the Scottish Council for Single Homeless described homelessness services as an afterthought in council areas where housing stock was being transferred.

Researchers scrutinised four councils following stock transfers: Argyll & Bute, Scottish Borders, Glasgow and Inverclyde. With the exception of Argyll & Bute, they found councils gave little attention to how homelessness would be managed after transfer.

The report concluded: "In most cases, the situation for homeless people appears worse [after stock transfer]..due to a combination of poor planning for homelessness services after transfer, alongside the reduction in the importance placed on housing and homelessness services within local authorities".

Things may have improved on that front since 2008 when the report was published. But the latest statistics would suggest the Borders still faces a major problem in dealing with homelessness.

The recent proposal by the council to borrow money in a bid to build 200 affordable homes may help the situation if the houses can be delivered. Maybe they should have held on to their housing powers and the ownership of the properties they sold when stock transfers were being touted as 'the only game in town' by the Lib/Lab Scottish government of the day.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Millions spent on agency staff in wake of exit strategy

The hard-pressed council taxpayers of the Scottish Borders, whose cash helps to fund their local authority's annual staffing bill of £180 million, have been assured the recent spate of sizeable exit packages for departing workers would deliver worthwhile savings for the public purse. But have they?

In the two-year period between April 2011 and March 2013 the princely sum of £5.467 million was spent on 213 redundancies. If my dodgy arithmetic stands up to scrutiny that works out at £25,666 for every head that rolled. A significant number of packages were well above that generous average figure.

However, according to last year's audited accounts the 75 packages agreed in 2012/13 would generate annual recurring savings of £1.454 million. So it seems on the face of it the workforce and the wage bill are shrinking in line with service cuts.

In recent days the Scottish Government has released the latest statistics on local government staffing levels in each of the country's 32 local authorities. Separate totals are given for so-called full time equivalents (FTE) and the actual headcount, taking into account full-time and part-time employees.

The Scottish Borders Council headcount to the nearest 100 for the first quarter of 2014 was 5,500, exactly the same as it was in the third quarter of 2012 when posts were being axed under the so-called exit strategy. And in the last twelve months that same headcount has decreased by a mere 1.6%.

The table for FTEs shows 4,400 posts in 2012, and 4,400 again in 2014. The change in the number of FTEs in the last twelve months is given as 0 (nil) although in percentage terms the number is said to have fallen by one per cent or considerably less than 100.

Explanatory notes accompanying the figures tell us the statistics on staff numbers are based on the number of employees with an employment contract who are being paid by the councils. Agency workers are EXCLUDED from the tables.

Just as the Government released its data Scottish Borders Council responded to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request asking for details of agency staff used by the local authority since 2012 when employees with contracts were being paid off.

This set of figures reveals that from April 2012 up to the beginning of June 2014 the council spent an impressive £2,352,571.29 on staff recruited from employment agencies. The largest sums were for work in the Chief Executive's department (£800,677) and Social Work (£845,916). Other services to plug gaps in the workforce by using agency staff included Technical Services (£192,597) Vehicle Maintenance (£46,014), SB Contracts for roads contracts delivery (£167,697) and Protective Services for refuse collection, street cleaning and maintenance of public toilets (£251,656).

Unfortunately the council could not tell the FOI requester how many individual agency workers had been used in the course of running up the bill of more than £2.3 million. So did the total equal or exceed the number of employees who left with exit packages?

The council explained: "Without an examination of each transaction we cannot break down the above expenditure to agency used, number of staff or staff grading group. But most of the spend will be upon management/professional/administrative staff."

Under FOI rules a public authority can declare information exempt if the cost of researching and assembling the facts exceeds £600. In this particular case SBC claimed it would cost above the £600 fees limit to examine each invoice in detail, so the number of posts has not been disclosed..

Does all of this mean our local authority got rid of too many staff under its exit strategy, leaving too many empty desks and too many unfulfilled tasks in the process? Were those who remained in post asked to shoulder an intolerable burden of extra duties after losing so many colleagues? Should the actual number of employees at SBC be adjusted upwards when agency personnel are included? Has there been in significant reduction in staffing levels? And should spending on agency staff be deducted from the estimated savings resulting from redundancies?

Surely all of these issues and questions require detailed explanations and answers.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Fans with microphones...a disservice to sport

We've been warned that if Scotland votes to go it alone in the September referendum the country may be unable to watch popular BBC television and radio programmes such as East Enders and The Archers.

I'm convinced this is another scare story put about by the No side, although I have to say I wouldn't mind having selected chunks of BBC output blocked by technology. In particular, the near fanatical English bias displayed by many of its sports commentators.

Perhaps you're old enough to remember the days when the chaps covering a Test match or a game of football were content to describe the action without forcing their views or prejudices down the throats of their audience. The likes of John Arlott could bring the cricket to life with his wonderful turn of phrase, and Peter Jones was my idea of a top soccer commentator.

The Scottish Borders gave the world Bill McLaren, the finest TV commentator bar none, who deserved the title The Voice of Rugby. He may have been a Scot with a fierce passion for his country's rugby team, but he never showed it on air, even when the Scots were competing for the Calcutta Cup against the Auld Enemy.

It is such a shame that commentators nowadays are allowed to blatantly support their favourite club or country. And when they lay down the microphone for their half-time pie and Bovril the viewer or listener is confronted by a panel of 'experts' who proceed to analyse and dissect every kick or handling move.

The BBC's coverage of the 2014 World Cup of Football has been completely ruined for me by the almost one hundred percent concentration on the useless, third-rate English team by a veritable army of posers and pundits, despatched to Brazil at huge expense to licence payers. I'm sure the bloated TV team from Gary Lineker down (or should that be up) were convinced Rooney, Gerard and company were coming back with the trophy.

Meanwhile Radio Five Live have been broadcasting twelve-hours-a-day coverage, much of it concentrating on England's team selection and subsequent failings on the field of play. The post-mortem which followed the defeat at the hands of Uruguay (population 3.5 million, or the same number of people who live in Wales) lasted several days.

Irishman Alan Green, one of the English fans with a microphone, seemed convinced there was nothing to prevent his favourite team from progressing into the last sixteen and beyond. He had strong backing from a support team which featured the awful Robbie Savage and the ranting Chris Waddle.

But even when it became mathematically impossible for England to get out of their group we continued to be bombarded with endless drivel by legions of presenters and their guests ensconced in a cafe-bar on Copacabana beach. Money no object it would seem when others are footing the bill. The entire motley crew should have been forced to watch a boxed-set of Bill McLaren commentaries to show them how it should be done.

The situation has been no better at the now completed three match rugby Test series featuring New Zealand and England. It was bad enough having to suffer another season of Six Nations matches listening to Brian Moore spouting his pro-English propaganda.

This month if we wanted to hear the match on the car radio it was Scotsman Ian Robertson screaming like a banshee every time England got anywhere near the try line. His biased patter even extended to goading his fellow commentator Murray Mexted, the former All Black, whenever England were ahead on points.

"You must be worried now Murray", Robertson quipped on more than one occasion. But, of course, Murray had no need to worry for New Zealand (population a mere 4.433 million) triumphed in every encounter, thrashing England by half-time in the third Test.

There isn't enough space here to discuss the shortcomings of Adrian Chiles and the other English fans covering the World Cup for ITV. And there are numerous examples of English bias elsewhere in the broadcast media.

Perhaps the Bill McLaren Foundation could sponsor or organise courses for budding sports commentators so that the highest professional standards as practised by the much loved and much missed Voice of Rugby might be resurrected and carried forward for the benefit of future generations of sports fans.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Council at your convenience? Perhaps not for much longer

Despite a noticeable reduction in their workloads, and a series of questionable decisions which have seen local government services decimated across the Borders in recent years our elected councillors continue to escape the financial pain inflicted by the "savage cuts".

Local council taxpayers have already watched the council sell off its housing stock and shift sport and leisure into the care of Trusts. In the very near future cultural services - libraries and museums to you and me - and social care will also pass out of direct council control.

Now comes news that Neighbourhood daft a title is that?...are the latest basic public services to be placed under the spotlight prior to radical surgery. We are told the upkeep of our public parks and open spaces, the cleaning of our public conveniences, and even the maintenance of our cemeteries are no longer affordable. Yes, even the dead cannot escape the incessant drive to save money.

This latest exercise is aimed at paring £450,000 off the Neighbourhood Operations budget. Last time out a similar sum had to be found by withdrawing the fortnightly garden waste collections on which so many of us relied. One shudders to think where the axe will fall next.

A report to councillors earlier this year set out the methodology of the forthcoming review. The document approved by the elected members declared: "The approach to the review of Parks and Open Spaces will be integrated and prioritised, allowing decisions to be taken with a clear understanding of the risk and implications that may arise from the decisions. The review proposes to use an assessment framework to facilitate a consistent assessment to the current provision and maintenance standards of open space throughout the Borders".

No kidding! I'll leave you to work that one out for yourself as I'm afraid I can't make head nor tail of it!

I think it means the council plans to cut back on the frequency of grass cutting while hoping to transfer the maintenance of sports pitches to third parties.

The Neighbourhood Operations department is also having difficulty coping with the 98 hectares of Borders burial grounds which, "due to their nature contain many obstructed grass areas with lots of historic monuments and areas of uneven ground". Again, the solution seems to lie in handing over responsibility for as many cemeteries as possible to other people.

It was slightly disturbing to read the section of the report relating to public conveniences of which there are 43 provided by Scottish Borders Council. Apparently, since 2011 Neighbourhood Operations have been monitoring the daily usage of the toilets. Surely they would have been better employed grass-cutting or toiling at cemetery maintenance rather than watching how many of us were taking a comfort break.

However, the results of the surveys are in, and those conveniences visited more than 300 times per week have been given the accolade Key Strategic Facilities 'as they clearly support the performance of the region's economy'. Really? But a second category entitled Neighbourhood Facilities are attracting fewer than 300 needy clients, and "are not being used effectively therefore not delivering best value". Who decided on the cut-off point?

It can be assumed that conveniences used less than 100 times a week face closure although it's a relief (literally) to know a Comfort Scheme is under consideration. The scheme would identify and designate facilities situated in other people's properties, and these would be advertised accordingly. Phew!

As I pointed out many paragraphs ago there's no sign of thoughts turning to a meaningful cut in the wage bill for our 34 councillors even though they have much less to oversee in 2014 than they did a decade ago. In 2013/14 their combined salaries amounted to £648,566, up from £629,612 in the previous financial year. And in 2007/8 with a heavier burden of responsibility than nowadays the figure was £587,124.

So surely it is time for an independent review to consider say a 20% cut in salary levels to take account of the loss of control of and responsibility for housing, leisure and recreation, cultural services, social care and (potentially) public toilets. Will anyone second the motion?


Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Borders must up its game on PE provision

This week I watched with considerable pride as my ten-year-old grandson claimed the championship for boys at his primary school sports on a gloriously sunny afternoon.

I'm hopeful he'll follow in the footsteps of previous generations of sporting Borderers whose names are writ large in national and even international record books, particularly in rugby and athletics, although he appears more interested in association football right now.

The achievements of Borders competitors in many forms of sport are there for all to see and read about. And the future provision of Physical Education (PE) in schools seemed assured in 2011 when the Scottish Borders Physical Activity, Sport and Physical Education Strategy declared: "By 2014 we will have ensured that all pupils have access to two hours quality PE and that through widening choice and activities, young people will become more active in engaging in PE and activity through planned participation, coaching and leadership."

That laudable statement of intent was a virtual carbon copy of the Scottish Government's PE targets of 120 minutes of activity per week for every primary age pupil and 100 minutes per week for secondary school students.

So it was worrying to learn this week that a government Healthy Living Survey showed the Scottish Borders at the bottom of Scotland's performance table of PE provision in primary schools when measured in percentage terms.

Far from ensuring that all primaries would be providing two hours of PE by this year, only 49 out of 63 schools in the sector (77.8 per cent) are meeting the target. And the 14 schools which fall short of the 120 minute mark have a combined roll of 2,349 or 29 per cent of the total Borders primary school population of 8,064.

The next "worst" achievers are West Lothian on 86 per cent while the Scottish average improved from 88 per cent in 2013 to 97 per cent this year. Fourteen of the country's 32 local authorities achieved a 100 per cent score.

The 2014 performance in Scottish Borders is slightly worse than last year, and considerably down on 2012 when 57 out of 64 schools (89.1 per cent) were hitting the target.

All nine secondary schools in Borders region met the Government's demand for 100 minutes of PE in 2012 and 2013, but the number has fallen to six this year with Galashiels Academy, Hawick High School and Jedburgh Grammar School failing the PE time test.

It means a third of all secondary pupils in the Borders (2,152) attend schools which are not able to provide adequate PE time as laid down in Government guidelines.

According to the Healthy Living Survey: "PE must be during curriculum time and either taught or led by a registered class or PE specialist teacher. It includes dance, but does not include walking to school or drama."

The main reasons given by schools failing to reach the target were lack of facilities and problems with timetabling (e.g. some schools operate a 45 minute period system).

The introduction of the asymmetric school week in August, which will result in lessons being spread over four and a half days instead of five may make it even more difficult to fit in extra PE periods.

No doubt a solution will be found to get more Borders school up to scratch, but the pledge to have all pupils participating in up to 120 minutes of healthy exercise each week has not been delivered.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Truth...still a common casualty after 2,500 years

"In war, truth is the first casualty", wrote Aeschylus, the Greek tragic dramatist in about 500 BC as the Battle of Marathon raged around him. I wonder how often those words have been quoted since for they still ring true today.

However, Aeschylus could just as easily have altered the wording of his tenet to read: "In government, truth is the first casualty". For even in his day the rulers of Greece were masters of obfuscation who kept dangerous information well away from the populace.

These days it can be equally difficult to get at the truth. The Freedom of Information Scotland Act 2002 was supposed to herald a new dawn by forcing public bodies to release information on request. But there is no obligation on councils, Government departments and other organisations covered by the legislation to tell the truth, which renders the legislation somewhat useless.

It means that unless a request is couched in precise terms - it might even be advisable to get a specialist lawyer to draft your question - then the odds are you'll be fobbed off with a response which allows the authority to keep the real information under wraps. In other words, the organisation knows perfectly well which facts and figures you are after, but they'll do their best to ensure you don't get them courtesy of the Act's generous helping of wriggle room.

There was a classic example of the way the FOI system doesn't work in the public interest this week when Scottish Borders Council (SBC) belatedly updated its Freedom of Information archive for March, April and May by publishing the requests it had received and the responses given.

A questioner had asked the local authority how much it had spent on the Borders Railway project to date, and what budget figure had been allocated to the £300 million plan to restore a rail link between Edinburgh and Tweedbank.

Remember this is a so-called partnership project involving Transport Scotland, Edinburgh Council, Midlothian Council and SBC. Each partner is making a financial contribution towards the cost of the scheme. Surely taxpayers are entitled to know how much of their money will be splashed on the venture.

It must have come as a bit of a shock to the FOI requester to be told: "SBC has not spent any money on the Borders Railway. The project has to date been grant funded by Transport Scotland." And the second part of the question was met with an all too familiar form of words..."SBC does not hold this information and it is therefore exempt". A marvellously convenient get-out clause which is firmly embedded in the FOI Act.

I suspect the individual who submitted the request expected to be told, for example, that as far back as June 2004 the SBC Executive signed an undertaking binding the council to a commitment of £7.4 million over 30 years towards the capital cost of the railway at 2002 prices. The Borders share of this massive infrastructure investment will, no doubt, have risen to take account of inflation.

The council could also have told him/her that in December 2013 they agreed to spend a £1.25 million windfall on eleven projects, including the sum of £250,000 on Borders Railway Station Design.

And as recently as last month members of the council's Economic Development Group were informed that £190,000 had been found from within the council's Transformation Programme to pay for the appointment of two new officials to manage 'benefits realisation work' linked to the delivery of the railway.

In the words of the song performed by Sonata Arctica: "The Truth is out There". It's just damned difficult to find sometimes.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Rich and poor farmers, and the EU gravy train

I've always been a sucker for statistics, a nerdy anorak who can sit staring at rows of figures for hours on end in a bid to make something out of nothing. It's a dangerously time-consuming activity, a habit which could probably be cured by getting out more.

The latest mouthwatering collection of numbers to grab my attention comes with the catchy title Agriculture Facts and Figures 2014, and is supplied by the Scottish Government's army of number crunchers. The publication paints a stark picture of life at both ends of the Scottish farming spectrum, and shows the extent to which one of the main industries in Sheep and Rugby Country depends for its very existence on subsidies and grants from European sources.

Apparently the average Scottish Farm Business Income (FBI) without grants and subsidies would have been minus £16,000 in 2013. But when the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) payments and other hand-outs are added into the equation the figure improved dramatically to plus £30,000.

It does not mean that all farmers and proprietors of other agriculture-based businesses are rolling in money. Far from it.

Nineteen per cent of farms (about one in five) had a negative income, a further 42 per cent had an FBI below £30,000. So 61 per cent of farm businesses earn less than the £30,000 average. Thirty-two per cent recorded incomes of between £30,000 and £100,000, leaving an elite of eight percent in the above £100,000 bracket. A yawning gap between rich and poor, just as it is across the rest of society.

Scotland's continuing membership of the European Union has been one of the topics raised during the Independence referendum debate. And an "In-Out" referendum promised by the Conservatives should they win the 2015 General Election could result in an end to our EU ties. In the event of Britain (including Scotland) leaving or being kicked out of the EU then presumably the £663,695,661 paid to 21,861 Scottish enterprises in 2013 will completely dry up. That's a big statistic for anyone to contemplate and digest.

The total in grants and subsidies coming to the Scottish Borders is difficult to calculate, as many of the payments are now kept a strictly guarded secret following an EU ruling in 2010.

The figures which are in the public domain (some 16 per cent of the overall total) show just over 170 businesses in the TD and EH 45 postcode areas collected £13.7 million between them. Among the most significant payments were in the sums of £725,000 and £316,000 to two Berwickshire farms, £454,000 to a Peeblesshire business, £337,000 to a Selkirkshire company and £264,000 to a Jedburgh-based Trust.

It would appear (if you multiply the published figures by six) the European payments are worth at least £82 million a year to Borders farming with over 1,000 businesses reaping the benefits.

That's probably enough statistics for now. The question is: can Borders farming and the rest of Scottish agriculture afford to be without this European lifeline?

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Never forget the K.O.S.B.

I have never been a member of the armed forces, having missed National Service as a result of being born too late, and colour blindness probably ruled me out of considering a military career.

But that did not prevent me from admiring the outstanding bravery of successive generations of soldiers who helped weave the colourful history of our local regiment, the King's Own Scottish Borderers.

The K.O.S.B., originally raised in 1689, remained a force to be reckoned with as I grew up in the post-war years, and I always felt a few goosebumps while watching their parades through various Borders towns from Berwick to Peebles. Many town councils bestowed the freedom of the burgh on the regiment, an honour which allowed the servicemen, accompanied by their fine regimental band, to march through the streets with bayonets fixed, flags flying and drums beating. A thrilling sight.

Battle honours were won down the centuries from Minden in 1759 through countless campaigns right down to the 1991 Gulf War. A clutch of Victoria Crosses were awarded to K.O.S.B. soldiers who performed incredible acts of bravery in the two world wars.

But even all of that boundless courage and magnificent history could not prevent the Borderers name from being consigned to the history books in 2006 when Government defence cuts marked the end for many of the country's finest regiments despite fierce opposition and a series of determined rearguard actions to keep the famous names alive. No sentiment or sense of history when it comes to ruthless politics and hard-nosed economics.

For now the the K.O.S.B.'s history and reputation are being maintained by the regimental association whose directors and trustees are retired captains, majors, lieutenants and colonels steeped in military tradition. They also look after the interests of the regimental museum, housed in Berwick's splendid Eighteenth Century barracks. But will future generations be prepared to take on these onerous tasks as time passes and memories fade?

The K.O.S.B. Association plays a vital role in helping ex-servicemen who have fallen on hard times. Last year they processed 89 requests for assistance; 101 the year before. At the same time a new book which will chart the 300-plus years of history of the K.O.S.B. has been commissioned and is expected to be published in 2016.

Meanwhile the Ministry of Defence has been withdrawing support for 69 regimental museums in the United Kingdom, a move which will result in the loss of £4.3 million a year for facilities largely run by volunteers.

A report has been commissioned to look at options for the future of the K.O.S.B. museum, which recorded a financial loss last year, and will require funding from alternative sources to secure its long-term survival.

The recent D-Day commemorations reminded us all that we must never forget the supreme sacrifice made by tens of thousands of soldiers, sailors and airmen in all kinds of conflict. The name of the K.O.S.B. and other famous regiments deserve to be remembered in equal measure.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Culture shock...we need your Trust

This may be the land which produced literary greats like Walter Scott, John Buchan and James Hogg, but suddenly culture has become unaffordable in the Borders, and is set to be hived off by its current guardians. It certainly represents a seismic shift in the way cultural services are delivered.

Having already sold off its housing stock for a fraction of its true market value, and divested itself of leisure and recreation facilities to three separate sports trusts, our cash strapped local authority is ready to go down the charitable trust route again...this time to transfer libraries, museums and galleries out of council control.

If the current trend continues - yet another potential transfer of services is already under consideration - councillors will have little or nothing left to squabble over. But at least there'll be an impressive portfolio of arms length companies, trusts and associations.

The proposals for the future of Borders culture are currently out for public consultation. But it's a safe bet that the decision taken by councillors in February will be given the green light later this year with the Trust up and running by October 2015.

Cultural services has 200 staff on the payroll with an annual budget of £4.6 million. The services almost certain to switch to trust status include libraries, archives and local history, arts development, public halls and community centres. The buildings concerned will be leased to the trust, but will remain in council ownership.

But while the region's seven branch libraries will join the fledgling trust, a further five small town branches have already been amalgamated with council contact centres, so will they remain under local government control, and could it result in a different level of library service in different towns?

The council's priority is to save money, and there have been dire warnings that any alternative solution would involve a cull of halls, libraries, museums and community centres. As many as 13 of them would have to close to comply with lower budgets and the need to delivery £275,000 in savings.

However, it will cost up to £70,000 just to set up the Trust, there will be additional revenue costs of £60,000, and money will have to be found for support services such as personnel, information technology and property management. Current outlay on these aspects of Cultural Services amount to £500,000 per annum.

Seven of the buildings which will pass to the Trust are currently classified as Common Good properties. But the transfer of Mary Queen of Scots House and the Castle Jail in Jedburgh, Sir Walter Scott's Courtroom and the Victoria Halls in Selkirk, Volunteer Hall, Galashiels, Innerleithen Memorial Hall, and the Tait Hall, Kelso is not regarded as problematical.

If the Trust is afforded charitable status then it could benefit to the tune of £377,000 as a result of a remission of rates.

Nine other Scottish councils have already been down this path. The hope is that a new organisation with sole responsibility for the various aspects of local culture will provide a renewed sense of purpose to staff and be able to bring in extra funding from alternative sources.

Anyone who supports or opposes the concept has until July 31 to express an opinion.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Renewable industry getting the wind up

An attempt to adopt a "cautious approach" towards future wind turbine developments to mitigate the impact of wind farms on the Scottish Borders landscape has come under heavy fire from no fewer than nine renewable energy companies who are demanding that entire passages of the policy should either be ripped up or radically re-written.

The bid by Borders planners to check the speed of turbine development "due to the potential for adverse and cumulative impacts on landscape" is contained in the council's proposed Local Development Plan (LDP) which was recently the subject of public consultation.

Although the more restrictive approach may seem justified following the approval for more than 550 turbines in over 120 separate planning applications affecting some of the most attractive countryside in southern Scotland, the suggested measures fly in the face of the Scottish Government's Planning Policy (SPP).

In a series of submissions to the local planning authority some of the major players in the wind farm sector have expressed their displeasure at the LDP proposals which, it is claimed, could hamper progress in achieving Scottish Government renewable energy targets.

RES UK & Ireland Ltd, one of the world's leading independent wind turbine developers, has told the local authority: "We strongly object to the council's approach to onshore wind energy development. There is no national planning guidance support for any such precautionary approach".

The company is calling for chunks of the proposed policy to be withdrawn and for other parts to be reworded.

Meanwhile a submission from Coriolis Energy warns: "The reliance on landscape capacity inevitably rules out the suitability of huge swathes of the Scottish Borders area for wind farm development."

EDF Energy Renewables dismiss the proposed cautious approach as overly negative. Their scathing written response adds: "The outputs of the study do not embrace the strong policy support for renewables development at the Scottish Government level. The test of acceptability has been set unattainably high". Those sentiments are echoed by Fred Olsen Renewables who express concern over the negative stance towards future onshore wind energy development.

And Infinis set out their criticisms in a 35-page submission which asserts the LDP is lacking in its commitment to progress renewable energy development. Infinis, which currently has three active wind farm applications in the region, requests that Scottish Borders Council amends the 'Key Outcome' to ensure it is actively in alignment with SPP.

There's a warning too from Oxford-based TCI Renewables that the report on which the policy is derived has not been subjected to public consultation, and this is considered a serious flaw meaning the policy cannot be afforded any material weight and is open to challenge.

West Coast Energy, from Mold, Flintshire, state: "The landscape capacity study does not match the ambition and aspiration of the Scottish Government to be a truly low carbon country. The strategy results in a confusing message for developers and the public".

It will be interesting to see whether the local planning authority maintains its "cautious" position or backs down in the face of such a concerted lobbying effort on the part of the wind farm industry. And could the council's ruling group, which is partly populated by SNP elected members, receive a sharp dig in the ribs from "up the road" in Edinburgh instructing them to get back into line with Nationalist SPP guidelines?

If no-one blinks it has the makings of a gripping stand-off.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

A marriage of convenience

Should the Scottish electorate be sensible/brave/daft/stupid (delete as appropriate) enough to vote for independence come September 18, one thing's for sure...we will no longer require 32 separate local authorities or their armies of generously paid officers and councillors.

Just think about it. The savings generated from the removal of scores of portfolio holders and Cabinet members, not to mention Directors of This and Directors of That, would probably be sufficient to wipe out the national debt. I look forward to the day when we have five or six local Super Powers to oversee crucial tasks like making sure the bins - including green wheelies - are emptied on time.

So how might the revised local government map of Scotland look five or ten years from now? The Boundary Commission will have a field day re-jigging our civic territories without any thought for distances or diabolical road links. Meanwhile there will be fiercely fought municipal battles the length and breadth of Scotland as our council leaders cling desperately to power, citing historic place names and 'aye been' traditions to justify the continuation of their salaried existence.

But you may be glad to know that here in rugby country they're already ahead of the game. This very week it was revealed that council officers from the Borders and Dumfries & Galloway had been working for months behind the scenes to draw up a joint list of key infrastructure projects with a view to promoting them at Government level.

It meant proposals for a Central Borders Business Park near Galashiels estimated at £5.1 million and the redevelopment of the Stranraer waterfront (£5.8 million) on the western fringe of southern Scotland appeared on the same sheet of paper. This is just the latest sign that the two local authorities covering that vast expanse of land to the south of Edinburgh and Glasgow are cosying up to each other.

We already have the South of Scotland Alliance pushing the case for a low carbon economy, European funding, improved skills, capital investment and infrastructure and better broadband connections. And the Southern Uplands Partnership...civil, one presumes...has been around for years, bidding to keep local communities "alive and healthy".

These days it's relatively easy to move from partnership to marriage, and on the face of it the Borders and Dumfries & Galloway are made for each other.

However, there would be difficult issues to be settled and obstacles to be overcome. The current east-west A7 road connecting the two areas is certainly not fit for purpose. So it may be necessary to convert the 200-mile long Southern Upland Way footpath between Eyemouth and Stranraer into a dual carriageway with a tartan version of HS2 running alongside the new highway. Problem solved; travellers from Berwickshire able to take in the wonders of the revamped Stranraer waterfront, and still be home in time for tea.

But the most important topic for debate between the prospective partners is likely to be the location for the new shiny £200 million council headquarters. It may be difficult for some to imagine a time when Galashiels is no longer the centre of the universe, and that there is a world beyond Dumfries. I think the smart money may be on Ecclefechan, but I could be wrong.

My spies in the west tell me they do play a version of rugby over there, and sheep have been spotted grazing the Galloway hills. So at least the name of the blog won't have to be changed.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Sheep country devastated by lack of Enterprise

Local politicians in sheep and rugby country were distinctly unhappy last year when it was revealed investment in the local economy by Scottish Enterprise had virtually disappeared off the bottom of the measurable scale. They may be about to experience a further bout of outrage if they've spotted the latest localised end of term report from the enterprise agency.

Not so long ago the now defunct Borders local enterprise company (LEC) was ploughing £10 million a year into business ventures and infrastructure projects aimed at boosting local prosperity. But after all LECs were axed by the Scottish Government in 2008 rural areas like ours began to suffer as an even larger share of the investment cake was devoured by Central Scotland.

So woeful were the region's 2012/13 returns from Scottish Enterprise's inappropriately titled "Activity Report" that councillors in charge at Scottish Borders Council vowed to lobby for increased allocations of cash for investment in the Borders. Among the stand-out statistics: only one Regional Selective Assistance (RSA) grant valued at £175,000 to create 24 new local jobs out of a Scottish spend of £43.7 million on 188 ventures; just eight companies entering the Business Gateway pipeline; number of innovation grants approved - six.

This failure to achieve very much across a number of key indicators prompted council leader David Parker to tell The Peeblesshire News: "It is my view that much more central government investment is now required to bring growth back to the Borders economy and this report offers clear evidence of that requirement."

But it would appear the plea from the Borders may have fallen on deaf ears, or perhaps our elected members carry less clout than they would have us believe. The comparable levels of performance in 2013/14 are even more doom laden and disappointing if that is possible. While the rest of Scotland received £52.76 million in RSA, Borders pulled in nothing at all. That's right, not a single £ sterling. There were no accepted offers, and therefore no jobs were created and none were safeguarded from this important form of assistance.

Meanwhile only three local enterprises entered the Business Gateway pipeline while the number of innovation grants approved fell from six to three. In the same period there was one solitary Borders investment worth £200,000 from the Scottish Investment Bank which spent an impressive £32.5 million in total.

And in case we were pinning our hopes on spin-off benefits or a commercial legacy from this year's Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, the Scottish Enterprise report shows not one of the 432 contracts awarded by Games organisers went to a Borders-based business.

So how can any rural area expect to compete robustly for growth and prosperity under these circumstances and with such a pathetic level of assistance from national agencies? And the Borders is not alone in its plight; I'd invite you to take a look at Scottish Enterprise's "achievements" in neighbouring Dumfries & Galloway for they are equally unimpressive.

The number of people in work in the Scottish Borders fell from 55,800 in 2008 to 52,300 in 2012, according to Government figures. And as local authorities and other public bodies continue to shed staff in a bid to drive down costs this unhealthy trend is set to continue unless the private sector is given the wherewithal to take up the slack.

But unless things change the prospects are not encouraging, even with the delivery of the much trumpeted Borders Railway.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Who bagged Scotland's missing millions?

The recently published report by the Scottish Government's Land Reform Review Group received relatively little attention from press and broadcast media even though it carried evidence of the puzzling absence of any record of common good lands and properties for more than 50 of Scotland's burghs, including four towns in the Borders.

The 197 town councils which ceased to exist when local government reforms swept them into the history books in 1975 should have had Common Good assets transferred to their successors. But almost 40 years on, according to the review group's report The Land of Scotland and the Common Good:"there are still 54 burghs for which no assets are reported".

That all adds up to a sizeable collection of missing or misappropriated real estate, buildings and provosts'chains, the value of which is difficult to calculate. It will certainly exceed the combined proceeds from the 1963 Great Train Robbery and the Brinks-MAT raid on a warehouse at Heathrow Airport twenty years later by a country mile. They netted a mere £28.6 million between them, or £61 million in today's equivalents.

Despite the magnitude of the potential value of the missing items from Scotland's bygone Rich List I can find no trace of an investigation, either civil or criminal, to locate the whereabouts of the "misplaced" Royal bequests.

However, I doubt whether even Hercule Poirot or Inspector Clouseau of the Surete could solve the Case of the Lost Common Good. For it seems bits and pieces from the collections of assets gifted to the burghs by various Kings of Scotland more than 600 years ago were being stolen, misappropriated or sold off almost from day one.

Never mind an oil fund. Had the 197 Scottish Common Good Funds remained intact from their foundation, and had they been properly monitored and administered by whoever was in charge at any given time then many communities would now be enjoying extra facilities and amenities as well as sitting on a hoard of cash.

The £300 million in the existing 143 Common Good Funds identified in the review group's report represents a tiny fraction of the original estates bequeathed by Royal Charter. For even in the Fifteenth Century the Scottish Parliament was moved to pass the Common Good Act 1491 in response to allegations of corruption and maladministration. It was ever thus.

But the legislation did little to prevent the plunder and pillage of the Commons with vast acreages of land being used to earn unscrupulous burghers a fast buck. The depredations and neglect continued through a succession of local government reorganisations with poor record keeping blamed for a multitude of sins.

Research published in 2005 by Andy Wightman and James Perman, two extremely knowledgeable individuals when it comes to matters of Common Good, concluded: "the estimated value of the common good assets that should be held on behalf of communities to generate wealth and community benefit might easily stand at around £1.8 billion." The total value they could identify from Scottish council figures was one tenth of that estimate.

A quick calculation using statistics from the review group report suggests the average value of each Scottish common good fund is slightly more than £2 million (£300.081 million divided by 143). On that basis 54 Scottish towns without any recorded assets have been and continue to be deprived of £113.317 million in community assets.

Here in sheep and rugby country the eight named Common Good funds are currently worth a surprisingly modest £9.849 million. But the Borders had twelve burghs prior to the 1975 reforms. So are the citizens of Eyemouth, Coldstream, Melrose and Innerleithen missing out on funds which should - according to the Scottish average - be valued at up to £8.392 million?

Were these four tracts of common land seized by robber barons in medieval times or did they cease to be community owned due to dodgy transactions or forgetful book-keeping at some point since?

Whatever their fate, the subject would certainly provide an interesting and entertaining research project for a sharp-witted history student with time to plough through archives of town council minutes and other ancient documents. Perhaps councillors and officials currently looking after our Common Good would be prepared to offer a 10 per cent reward on the value of any recovery of stolen or missing properties. Anyone tempted?

Friday, 6 June 2014

A Borders blog...the beginning

I've been told on many occasions that the Scottish Borders suffers from a lack of worldwide exposure, although many of us who live in this attractive, and mostly tranquil corner of the world, probably hope it can remain largely undiscovered for a few more years.

Many of those living in Englandshire and beyond associate the rolling hills of the Borders with sheep farms and rugby union, and...nothing else.

But encouraged by family members and my extremely small band of friends, and goaded by others who can only be regarded as fleeting acquaintances, I've decided to bite the bullet and blog, despite my advancing years.

Apparently there's plenty of interesting goings on around here though most of them may have passed me by. According to one of the few folk who gets in touch from time to time: "You know Jed, I can mind the day when our local papers were willing and able to criticise our councillors, our politicians, and anyone else who messed up. But for the most part they've given up the fight and are happy to fill their columns with handouts from spin doctors and press officers. There's naebody keepin' an eye on our elected servants any more".

I could only agree that some of the coverage is extremely tame, and our local authority (Scottish Borders Council) gets a much easier ride than it used to. But that doesn't mean the administrators no longer take daft decisions which can impact on all of our lives.

Had I started this blog a few months ago I would have been writing about the cancellation of garden waste collections from a rural area peppered with gardens. If ever a decision wasn't thought through then this was it. Result? An army of angry gardeners who may well be ready to turf out (if you'll pardon the pun) those responsible at the next council elections.

Not only that. Impressive recycling percentages are set to plummet, and the first reports of fly-tipping in the Borders countryside are already in. The once friendly relationships with neighbours are now threatened as the temptation to tip lawn clippings over next door's fence rears its ugly head. You'll be happy to learn I've far!

Then there was the strange case of the asymmetric school week.

What's that, I hear you cry? Apparently this piece of educational madness is being phased in nationwide in a bid to save money and diminish yet another of our public services. It means that from August our Borders schools will call a halt to lessons each Friday lunchtime even though many of the affected parents voiced strong opposition during what was laughingly called "The Consultation Process".

The recently published timetables for local primary schools display a strange range of starting times, a hotchpotch of different lunch breaks, and a real dog's breakfast each Friday. I notice that more than one primary will break for lunch at the ungodly hour of 10.10 am while I'm half way through my breakfast. Good grief!

It would be difficult to let this first effort grind to a halt without a mention for the madcap proposal to spend up to £5 million on a custom-built shed to house The Great Tapestry of Scotland at the Tweedbank terminus of the Borders railway.

We are told repeatedly the council is so hard up it cannot afford to run half of the services it used to deliver. Yet those at the helm can conjure up many thousands of pounds for a feasibility study. No doubt the next step will be an application for consent to borrow the £5 million required for the project itself. For goodness sake, leave the provision of tourist attractions to VisitScotland and reinstate the green bin collections instead.