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.

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