Tuesday, 29 September 2015

A law unto themselves?


The weekend revelation that Scottish Borders Council had invited firms to tender for a £6 million contract even before the project had received planning permission must have set alarm bells ringing among local taxpayers and residents who believe in democracy.

But surely there are implications too for those who are supposed to be responsible for proper procedures in local government, although it is increasingly difficult to find any watchdog with the willingness to intervene when mistakes are made or decision making processes are flouted and ignored.

At the same time there appears to be a complete lack of opposition and dissent inside the council chamber and throughout the local authority's structure. Have councillors been silenced or are their criticisms not covered in the local press for fear of lost advertising revenue? Those public notices must be worth a fortune!

The recent disclosure that SBC frequently doesn't bother to record internal discussions and briefings in writing, preferring instead to conduct even important items of business verbally, also points to an air of arrogance, and disdain for accountability.

In addition there have been examples of a complete lack of public consultation on topics which taxpayers considered to be important in their daily lives - perhaps most notably the withdrawal of garden refuse collections in 2014.

The concerted efforts to cover up potentially embarrassing and damaging information linked to the council's disastrous waste management contract with New Earth Solutions, and the decision to commit millions of pounds of public money to pay for the tapestry museum at Tweedbank before allowing electors to have their say adds to the impression that the current administration has become a law unto itself.

So much for the promises of a wholly transparent regime when the various political groupings got together to run local affairs after the municipal elections of 2012. Even attempts to extract data and statistics via the Freedom of Information route can be blocked or delayed by legal arguments or through the use of exemptions in the legislation. Many requesters concede defeat by throwing in the towel. Much more information should be published without the need for FOI requests.

Last Friday's publication of an official notice on the Scottish Government's Public Contracts Scotland website makes no mention of the fact that planning permission for the Great Tapestry of Scotland museum has yet to be secured. Nor does it outline the considerable level of local opposition, with a 4,400 signature petition due to be considered by councillors later this week.

It surely means planning approval for the expensive project at Tweedbank is a given, and the petition will be consigned to the litter bin despite its strong backing from disgruntled members of the public. Senior planning officers are recommending approval for the council's own development application which will, no doubt, be rubber stamped at committee next Monday.

In the circumstances the application for consent should be considered by a neutral planning authority - say East Lothian or Dumfries & Galloway Council - whose officers could examine the proposals objectively, and purely from a planning perspective without the influence of internal vested interests.

It is a course of action which is not available at present, but in the current circumstances it certainly should be. The only other option would be for the case to be called in and decided by Scottish Government planning officials without input from Ministers.

Instead what we are witnessing is a process more akin to Putin's Russia or Xi Jinping's China rather than an outcome based on a genuinely Scottish democratic procedure. It does SBC no credit whatsoever.

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