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?


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