Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Borders Railway property costs well above estimate

EXCLUSIVE - by Doug Collie, Staff Reporter

The amount of money spent on the acquisition of residential and commercial properties blighted by the Borders Railway Project far outstripped the estimates set out in the scheme's original Business Plan, according to figures disclosed by Transport Scotland.

Statistics obtained via a Freedom of Information request and passed on to the Not Just Sheep and Rugby office show the rail developers had to fork out 50 per cent more for homes and businesses in the Scottish Borders and Midlothian than originally planned. And that overspend has taken place despite fewer acquisitions than were originally envisaged by the Scottish Government and the construction companies working on the project.

The Waverley Railway Outline Business Case suggested it would be necessary to purchase 51 residential properties together with three commercial premises in the Borders to make way for the reinstatement of the line between Edinburgh and Tweedbank. The cost of the acquisitions was put at £5.555 million.

At the same time the project team claimed it would be necessary to buy 12 houses and two businesses in Midlothian at a total cost of £2.17 million. The business case concluded that by re-selling some or all of the affected properties some £4.1 million would be recouped once the project was completed.

Transport Scotland has now confirmed that 38 residential buildings and nine commercial properties have been acquired or are in the process of being purchased in the Borders involving a total outlay of £7.8 million which is 40% higher than the original cost estimate.

Meanwhile the amount spent in Midlothian on the purchase of 11 houses and two businesses adds up to £3.8 million, 75% above the figure contained in the Business Plan.

The Freedom of Information response adds: "No resale value has yet been achieved as resale of the properties is unlikely to take place before twelve months has elapsed after the new line opens. Network Rail need to be confident that in operating the line they have retained control of all operational land."

Latest estimates for the total cost of the Borders Railway put the final figure at £353 million, well over double the original sum quoted when the project was first mooted.

It has also been claimed that Scottish Borders Council's hopes of paying their share of the project - some £8 million - through developer contributions from house builders have already been dashed because of much lower levels of activity by the construction industry than anticipated.

Trains are expected to be running to and from the Central Borders by September 2015. The Waverley Line closed in 1969, a victim of the Beeching Report which recommended the withdrawal of uneconomic rail services from many parts of the country.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Referendum coverage an insult to Scots' intelligence

With just a couple of days left till polling day I suppose any hopes of sourcing a measure of balanced coverage of the Great Debate have completely disappeared. Quite frankly the contribution made by the print press has been disgraceful and woeful; they should hang their combined heads in shame.

I'm old enough to recall previous campaigns asking us if we wanted Scottish devolution and European Union membership when the papers concentrated for the most part on straight, factual reporting without pushing the views of their proprietors down our throats at every opportunity.

In those days there was a clear division between the news pages and the Opinion column where the leader writer put forward his or her views sedately and without rancour. The readers were then left to make up their own minds.

But nowadays fact, opinion and pure fiction can be found in the same paragraph of an article purporting to be news. Little wonder newspaper sales are collapsing as their once loyal readership cry "Enough!" and stop buying the title they'd been taking for a generation.

The influence of the press also seems to be diminishing fast. Even though the vast majority of titles have offered strong support for Better Together, the Yes camp appears to have closed a 20 per cent gap to create a neck-and-neck contest. So much for the host of ridiculous scare stories and half truths that have filled many a column from day one of the current campaign.

How many potential No voters have switched allegiance after reading some of the bilge washed up in the pages of the Scottish Daily Mail, for instance? They've resorted to every trick in the book from world markets crashing at the very thought of Scottish Independence to allegations of bullying by fanatical nationalists, or cybernats as the Mail has dubbed them.

The truth of the matter is the pound fell by just under a cent against the dollar on one particular day last week, and both the value of sterling and the stock market recovered fully within 24 hours. And there has been no mention of the No campaigners who have vowed to make life hell for Yes supporters once the referendum is done and dusted.

The Mail, which once branded Gordon Brown the worst Prime Minister in the entire history of the United Kingdom, and blamed Alistair Darling for the economic crash of 2008, recently afforded both of these gentlemen hero status for their roles as the 'big beasts' of Better Together. How cynical and opportunistic is that? Even 'Red' Ed Miliband, another of the Mail's hate figures, suddenly became lovable as he urged voters to stick with the Union.

On the other side of the fence the Sunday Herald - the first title to declare for Yes - has been equally blinkered in its presentation of the case for separation. The disadvantages of splitting from the rest of the nation have been set aside and virtually ignored in an all-embracing rush to persuade readers to plump for independence.

So where does an undecided voter turn for a straight down the middle presentation of the pros and cons? Well even the BBC is tainted with allegations of bias, and closer to home the coverage of referendum issues in some of our local Borders weeklies has hardly been even handed.

Maybe half their readership has been alienated in the process, something weekly papers should avoid at all costs with circulation in a continuous downward spiral.

According to the pundits social media has been the main player in disseminating information in 2014. But when you read some of the nasty stuff on Facebook and Twitter those outlets can hardly be trusted either.

I'm sure like me many of you have felt insulted by some of the crass articles written by so-called journalists who have been programmed to deliver a certain message, mainly it seems for the benefit of the No lobby. It's as though we are all wee bairns, incapable of making our minds up by carrying out our own research before deciding which way to cast our X on the ballot paper.

Whichever way you vote on Thursday here's hoping you get the result you desire. But before casting your vote remember this: don't believe everything you read in the papers!

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Callants Club: 'Hawick should have Great Tapestry of Scotland'

The controversial proposal to locate The Great Tapestry of Scotland in a £5 million visitor centre at Tweedbank has sparked a fierce war of words between Hawick Callants Club and David Parker, the leader of Scottish Borders Council (SBC).

Club members have been angered following a failed attempt to bring the tapestry to Hawick, regarded by many as the principal centre for textiles in the Borders. And they have made their strong feelings known in correspondence with Mr Parker who is championing the Tweedbank option.

Local MSP John Lamont has also been dragged into the dispute with accusations of his "lack of action" in pressing Hawick's case.

In a letter to Mr Parker, Derick Tait, the Callants Club president, wrote: "Your attempt to shift the blame for inaction on to John Lamont is quite shameful and does you no credit."

Mr Tait claims Hawick is the ideal location for the Borders to capitalise on the Tapestry. He adds: "The late President of the United States, John F Kennedy had a saying - 'An error doesn't become a mistake until you refuse to correct it'.

"Quite obviously an error has been made in choosing Tweedbank as a location for the tapestry. By recognising the real worthiness of Hawick as the best location you can avoid your error becoming a mistake."

Hawick was discarded as a potential host town for the tapestry because there was said to be no suitable building capable of housing it, a conclusion hotly disputed by the Callants Club.

But Mr Tait and his colleagues have vowed to fight on. Their letter to the council leader concludes: " We would urge you to heed the advice given and recognise that if the tapestry is to come to the Borders, then Hawick has the strongest case, and as such is the obvious location."

The council has commissioned a £40,000 feasibility study into the Tweedbank proposals, and the findings are due to be considered later this year. But an announcement last month - credited to First Minister Alex Salmond - suggesting the project would be developed at the southern end of the Borders Railway, took many people by surprise.

It has since been confirmed that the Scottish Government will become a funding partner along with SBC and any external sponsorship that can be attracted for the Tweedbank venture. It means the council will have to commit money to the scheme if it goes ahead.

In a robust rebuttal of Mr Tait's claims, Councillor Parker writes: "I reject entirely your comment that my actions are shameful over the issue of John Lamont MSP's inaction. From everything I have been told, Mr Lamont called the meeting [in Hawick], agreed to follow up one potential site but never made contact again with the two other representatives who were at the meeting.

"From September 2013, John Lamont was well aware the Trustees [of the Tapestry] were seeking a home for the tapestry and it is a reasonable proposition to question whether Mr Lamont could have, and should have done more if he truly wanted the Tapestry located in Hawick".

Mr Parker also explains the recent announcement concerning the project at Tweedbank is still subject to approval by the elected members, with the study, business case and other elements likely to be considered in November.

He adds: "As the leader of Scottish Borders Council it is my role to do what is best for the whole of the Scottish Borders. The fact that we may have secured the Great Tapestry of Scotland for our region, at the expense of other parts of Scotland, must surely be welcomed."

Mr Parker warns that the Trustees have a number of other potential sites that are attractive to them outwith the Scottish Borders that they have indicated they will take forward in the event that Tweedbank is not secured.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Borders 'Bin-gate': a saga of briefing and bungling

At least one of the regulatory bodies responsible for competency and ethics in Scottish local government may be asked to investigate recent developments and dealings linked to the Borders Waste Management Strategy, elements of which smell almost as bad as some of the rubbish the council has to deal with on a daily basis.

To claim the strategy itself is in tatters would be an understatement as those responsible for the mess attempt to juggle various pots of money while overseeing a significant reduction in the amount of waste being recycled.

The revelations in a Scottish Borders Council briefing note, leaked to the media this week, appear to confirm that when councillors decided last December to withdraw garden waste collections from towns in the Borders they were unaware that a bid for money to pay for the mandatory introduction of food waste uplifts next year was in trouble because it had been lodged too late. So was the decision to bin the green bins taken on a false premise and with incomplete information?

By the time SBC had submitted its application to Zero Waste Scotland (ZWS), that organisation's £20 million pot, which was available on a first come first served basis, had been fully allocated. Now we learn that the cost of garden waste collections - the figure appears to have mysteriously risen from £475,000 to £610,000 - is virtually identical to the amount needed to implement the food waste service. A remarkable coincidence!

Our neighbours in Dumfries & Galloway secured £1.6 million, but SBC, which had been strongly against food waste collections from the outset, got nothing. Had a timely and successful bid been made to ZWS then Borders gardeners may have expected to keep their fortnightly green bin uplift as well as being able to put out their food scraps for the bin men.

The extraordinary briefing note, which was only given to the council administration's inner circle until the press got wind of it, also sets out to demolish the sterling efforts by former Hawick councillor Andrew Farquhar to petition the council for the restoration of the green bin service.

Mr Farquhar's petition may have already attracted hundreds, if not thousands, of signatories. But months before the Petitions Committee at Newtown St Boswells has had the chance to consider the matter senior councillors have set out to rubbish the campaign, if you'll pardon the pun, by briefing against it. A highly questionable method aimed at undermining a noble and worthy cause.

The briefing note discusses measures which would allow a report to be prepared with the cost of reinstatement 'inflated' by adding in the cost of vehicles, and for supplying households with green bins after the council initiated a scheme to take those same bins away.

And the note goes on: "We would add that of course in re-introducing any service there would be a challenging “equality issue” in respect of rural proofing to be addressed." So much for democracy.

Along the way the messenger gets shot with allegations of "misleading" press reports concerning the issue. Then comes an admission that officers did not secure available funding, but they apparently had no indication from ZWS that the funding well was dry.

The majority of Scotland's local authorities beat SBC to the punch as the following statement from ZWS confirms: " Zero Waste Scotland has provided 21 funding awards to local authorities in Scotland to roll out food waste collections. This funding was distributed on a first-come first-served basis, and other local authorities submitted their bids earlier in the process than Scottish Borders Council."

Surely this fiasco with its undertones of incompetence, briefing notes and cover-up is worthy of investigation. At the very least Borders council taxpayers are due a full explanation.