Thursday, 14 August 2014

Problems aplenty, but no need for meetings

The problems and issues confronting local government in the Borders may be well documented... the proposed transfer of cultural services to a trust, public disquiet over changes to the school week, formation of an arms length company to deliver community care, never ending budget cuts, and the abysmally low volume of investment by national agencies in the local economy.

It constitutes a list of topics ripe for debate, a dripping roast of an agenda for any councillor worth his salt to sink his teeth into, and an opportunity to hold our less than perfect administration to account.

Sad to say there will be no verbal exchanges across the Newtown St Boswells chamber this month on any of these important subjects after the ruling group cancelled August 28's full council meeting 'due to a lack of business'. And to make matters worse the cancellation has taken place without any consultation with members of the opposition. A crushing blow for local democracy.

But it gets worse! A quick scan through the programme of meetings displayed on the SBC website reveals that two other meetings scheduled for August have also been abandoned. We are told the Environment & Infrastructure Committee get together planned for August 21 has been cancelled because there is 'no substantive business'

Meanwhile the Petitions Committee, scheduled for the same day, will not meet due to 'lack of substantive business'. Who took these unilateral decisions?

Apparently the cancellation of the full council meeting was conveyed to elected members via email. The reason? Historically, the August meeting is very quiet with only a small number of reports to consider.

But surely reports could have been prepared earlier or the opportunity could have been taken to talk about some of the more pressing issues. Are our councillors unable to debate topics of THEIR choice without a crib sheet filled with hyperbole and gobbledegook  from their paid staff? That certainly seems to be the case. Come on boys and girls, take the initiative for a change: give democracy its head.

The fact that members of the Environment & Infrastructure Committee could not or were not allowed to assemble an agenda demonstrates a complete lack of practical sense and imagination. The latest landfill tax figures for the Borders - up by a whopping 27 per cent in two years to £2.9 million require urgent scrutiny, a report on the public reaction to the withdrawal of green bin collections would have been extremely informative, and there must be a host of questions to be asked about the greatest local infrastructure project for more than a century, the £353 million Borders (or is it Waverley) railway.

There hasn't been a meeting of the full council since June 26, and following this month's cancellation our 34 salaried representatives wont assemble as a single entity again until September 25. Money for old rope I hear you cry!

Not so. A proposal by the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland - the deadline for public consultation and submissions falls on the same day as those meetings of the environment and petitions committees should have been held - could reduce the number of Borders councillors from 34 to 32.

Cue bluster and outrage at council HQ. In a response SBC warned such a cut in their ranks would almost certainly lead to "overloaded councillors". Larger council wards would mean not only increased workloads, but also increased travel and travel time.

The statement went on: "With fewer councillors, the standard of and length of time for engagement with the public could reduce, response times could be longer or time spent with individual constituents could decrease as councillors would face responsibility for more members of the public".

In light of this week's regrettable cancellations maybe some of you would care to let the Commission have your views on councillor numbers by next Thursday.

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