Monday, 29 February 2016

A year on...Borders still the forgotten land


It may be fully twelve months since the Scottish Affairs Committee (SAC) at Westminster published a powerful and sweeping report which set out the critical issues facing the economy of the South of Scotland, but the UK Government has still not bothered to produce a formal response which would allow the document's findings and recommendations to be taken forward.

In the interim, the loss of manufacturing jobs and long established businesses from the Scottish Borders and Dumfries & Galloway has continued with no sign of major inward investment to staunch the haemorrhaging of the region's economic lifeblood.

Apparently the Conservative Government are more interested in squabbling amongst themselves over Europe, or promoting the ludicrously named Northern Powerhouse than paying attention to the needs of a vast swathe of rural territory part of which is represented in Parliament by no less a personage than David Mundell, the Secretary of State for Scotland.

It is understood that members of the SAC appointed after the May 2015 General Election have requested or even demanded that Cameron & Co put a stop to the incessant war with Boris and the rest of the Brexit mob within their own ranks and take time to come up with a written response to the conclusions reached in Our Borderlands Our Future, a report which was welcomed and praised across the political spectrum when it was published last March.

An excellent analysis of the South of Scotland's economic plight has been compiled by Brian Wilson, the former Scotland Office Minister, whose duties meant he was a regular visitor to the Borders as the local textile industry started to experience meltdown. Mr.Wilson's expose can be found on the website.

It is the kind of feature [or think piece as it's known in the journalistic trade] which readers are unlikely to find in the local weeklies nowadays as Johnston Press continues to take their axe to editorial staffing levels, and highly competent and experienced reporters and writers queue up for severance packages, desperate to end decades of service with papers they once loved and were proud to be associated with.

Mr.Wilson starts from the premise that the Borders and the South West often feel like the forgotten land in Scotland's national story - "no causes or characters to capture political attention". It would be hard to argue with that sentiment.

As he points out, the decline in Borders textiles is stark; in 1981 the industry employed 8,000 people which represented more than 50 per cent of manufacturing jobs in the region. Now the figure stands at 1,500 and is still falling.

"With every closure comes the cry that something must be done but nobody has yet found the magical solution, possibly because none exists", writes Mr. Wilson.

But he goes on to argue that with the right owners, astute marketing and a top quality product there is still a healthy living to be made out of textiles in the Scottish Borders. The emphasis has to be on the retention of skills which are disappearing fast while helping to marry design and marketing expertise to the needs of the remaining businesses.

It is difficult to see how Brian Wilson's proposed measures to assist the South of Scotland's economic well-being can be delivered while politicians continue to sit on their hands and the resources available remain grossly inadequate.

The committee report which now gathers dust on a Westminster shelf was not alone in advocating a development agency for the Borderlands akin to the robust and extremely well financed Highlands & Islands Enterprise to turn around the flagging fortunes of the old Border counties and their neighbours to the west.

It is abundantly clear that the decision to abolish Local Enterprise Companies (LECs) in 2008 robbed areas like the Borders of their ability to tackle local economic issues. Most of the people who served on the board of Scottish Enterprise Borders certainly knew what they were talking about, and they had the budget and staff at their disposal to make a difference.

Brian Wilson sums the current situation up like this: "Public money alone will not save what is left of the textiles industry or transform the Borders economy.

"Few could disagree however that public agencies should be working closely with those firms which have adapted, invested and are clearly capable of more than just survival. It is not a one-day publicity stunt in the wake of yet another closure that is needed but a sustained, tailored approach to supporting the specific requirements of good businesses".

Monday, 22 February 2016

Shedding new light on Hawick's 4,500 aliens


A team of researchers who have been taking a fresh look at the role of one of the biggest First World War internment camps for German aliens, situated just outside Hawick, are expected to disclose their findings at a study weekend in the town later this year.

The project is one of four to receive funding under the Gateways to the First World War initiative which provides support from the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Dr Stefan Manz, Head of German at Aston University, who has already produced fascinating insights into life at the Hawick site, is currently in charge of The Stobs Internment Camp and the Borders Region during WWI: Local Memories, Global Contexts. Dr Manz and colleagues from several universities are working with Scottish Borders Council's Archaeology Service in the project which will reach its conclusion with a study weekend for the general public in June.

While it was in use the Stobs facility was shrouded in secrecy, suspicion and speculation with hundreds of German civilian enemy aliens from all over Scotland incarcerated there from 1914 onwards. These inmates were later joined by thousands of soldiers and sailors, taken prisoner in Europe during conflicts with the British Army commanded by Field Marshal Douglas Haig, himself a Borderer.

The story of Stobs as told by Dr Manz is already included in the transactions of the highly respected Hawick Archaeological Society. Records show that in the space of less than 12 months the population of the internment camp increased from 300 to more than 4,500 - equivalent in population size to the Borders town of Jedburgh.

The doctor's account tells how so-called enemy aliens living in Glasgow and in other Scottish communities were rounded up by police before being taken to Edinburgh's Redford Barracks which acted as a central collection camp. The detainees were then sent on to camps all over the United Kingdom.

At Stobs there were four separate compounds each with 20 huts measuring 120 feet by 20 feet. The military personnel who became prisoners there were captured on the battle fields of France while the crews of the German battleships Blucher, Torpedo and Leipzig were among the naval officers and ratings who swelled the camp's numbers even further.

Stobs had its own hospital, staffed by four doctors and over 20 German attendants, each compound had its own kitchen manned by between 10 and 20 German cooks, and the prisoners formed orchestras, musical groups and singing societies to ward off the threat of boredom and insanity.

Following the German surrender in 1918 most of the civilian detainees were not permitted to return to their former homes in Scotland, and were deported to Germany along with the military POWs.

Those who participate in the public study weekend will have the chance to learn about the local and international significance of Stobs and Hawick during WWI. They will also listen to and talk to the experts who have conducted detailed research on Stobs and other POW camps around the world.

There will be displays of artefacts from the camp together with documents pertaining to the operation of Stobs. A site visit is also included in the itinerary while other proposals include excavation of the site together with improved public accessibility.

Monday, 15 February 2016

Minister's concerns not mentioned at 'tapestry' meeting


The concerns of Scotland's Culture Secretary about Scottish Borders Council's £6 million plans for a custom-built gallery to house the Great Tapestry of Scotland in a permanent home at Tweedbank were not even mentioned when councillors considered the controversial topic last Thursday.

So it is unclear whether all elected members in the SBC administration and members of the opposition Tory group were aware that the project's business case and business plan would have to be thoroughly revised after the Minister, Fiona Hyslop voiced her misgivings in January.

Details of the Culture Secretary's important intervention have been revealed in a letter from Ms Hyslop to local SNP MSP Christine Grahame, whose constituency of South Midlothian, Tweeddale & Lauderdale includes Tweedbank.

Ms Grahame had already expressed serious doubts about the proposal to bring the tapestry to Tweedbank, claiming the business case was flawed, and it would be better to accommodate the acclaimed textile panels in one of the Border towns. The MSP had asked the Culture Secretary to examine the plans closely before sanctioning the Scottish Government's promised contribution of £2.5 million towards the scheme.

It has been reported that Ms Grahame's intervention did not go down well with Nationalist councillors on SBC who form part of the ruling group. They voted for the Tweedbank option on Thursday along with sufficient numbers of Independent and Liberal Democrat members to ensure the project was included in the capital programme even though it is seriously unpopular and dismissed as a total waste of money by large swathes of the Borders public.

Ms Hyslop has told Ms Grahame that the Borders Railway Blueprint Programme Leaders' Group - hardly a catchy title for such an important sounding organisation - first presented a business case dated December 2014, along with a paper recommending approval to a Scottish Government representative in December 2015.

The Minister's letter continues: "Following initial advice in January 2016 I expressed concerns regarding the sustainability of the proposals and their fit with the original ambition set out in the Blueprint document.

"The Leaders' Group was asked to relay these concerns to the Project Team and I am given to understand that a commitment has now been given to review and fully revise the proposals."

Ms Hyslop explains that until such time as a fully revised business case, associated design and business plan has been submitted to the Scottish Government and sufficient time has been taken to reassess proposals, it was not possible to confirm a timescale for a decision. It was also her assumption that following revision the business case would require approval by SBC themselves.

It would certainly appear that SBC would have been well advised to secure Government's full approval for their proposals before proceeding to chop down hundreds of trees at the Tweedbank site. But then the entire planning process associated with the proposed development has been laced with controversy and premature action.

As one council observer put it: "Ms Hyslop's proclamation can only be described as extremely embarrassing for the SBC hierarchy and potentially tricky for the SNP group and their unswerving support for a project with a business case which simply does not stack up".

"The Scottish Government would look foolish if they had accepted the scheme as it stands, and that is probably why it has been kicked back to the project group. I'm afraid not enough homework has been done in this case and it could be some time before the tapestry gets its new home."

Ms Hyslop's letter concludes: "It is in everyone's interest that robust due diligence is undertaken to ensure the success of the project. Please be assured that the Scottish Government will continue working in full partnership with SBC to support the delivery of the Blueprint ambition to maximise the full economic potential of the Borders Railway".

Friday, 5 February 2016

Living way beyond their means

As I See It...DOUG COLLIE's take on Scottish Borders Council's budget proposals.

The Borders local government budget proposals for 2015/16 - a 39-page catalogue of financial tables and proposals for savings complete with a fine picture of a steam engine on the front cover - is available for scrutiny on the council website.

Apparently the draconian financial settlement imposed on councils by the Scottish Government means the ruling administration at SBC has to find £11.396 million worth of spending cuts this time round to balance the books, and that is proving to be a tough ask.

There are warnings of 130 job losses, but we are promised that front line services will be protected at all costs with the emphasis on education, roads and economic regeneration. It is puzzling therefore to see the Great Tapestry of Scotland museum - a project which is simply unaffordable - retain its place on the capital expenditure agenda with a price tag of £5.8 million.

Members of the public who are forced to sponsor SBC via council tax demands had been invited to submit their own cost cutting measures to help out the beleaguered councillors and highly paid officers as they grappled with the complicated mathematics. Unsurprisingly, axing the Tweedbank tapestry gallery came top of the suggested savings list put forward by disillusioned Borders punters.

So when some bright spark in Not Just Sheep & Rugby's editorial suite suggested our team should cast an eye over the SBC budget I found myself roped in after a great deal of Hillary Clinton style coin tossing.

A couple of eye-watering sums jumped off the pages of the SBC presentation, which is likely to be rubber-stamped at next Thursday's full council meeting. It led to the conclusion that Borders council, along with Scotland's other 31 local authorities, are living way beyond their means and will never get their monetary houses in order until they manage to radically reduce their interest payments.

Not too many folk will be aware that in 2016/17 SBC expects to pay £20.710 million in loan charges for previous borrowing while the annual bill for three Berwickshire secondary schools, built under one of those crazy PPP contracts seven years ago, stands at £8.296 million.

The £8,296,000 which SBC pays each year for its PPP schools contract works out at £22,728 per DAY or £159,538 per WEEK.

The £20,710,000 which SBC pays each year to service other borrowing works out at £56,739 per DAY or £398,269 per WEEK.

The twin burdens for those loan charges total just over £29 million, enough to fend off the £11.396 million in cuts almost three times over. It is difficult to envisage any private business based in the Scottish Borders being able to trade with financial albatrosses like that around their necks.

And the crippling PPP payments are set to continue every year until 2038. Just another unsound financial deal in the annals of Borders local government. Perhaps it should go into a Newtown St Boswells Hall of Shame alongside Icelandic Bank Investments, The Disastrous Waste Management Contract With New Earth Solutions, and The Business Case For The Great Tapestry of Scotland Venture.

According to the council report: "External consultants have been engaged to review the PPP contract with a target to deliver savings of £107,000 from 2016/17 with an emphasis on insurance costs, contract lifecycles and all other services provided within the contract". Well, every little helps!

The combined debt of Scottish local authorities runs into many billions of pounds, and is set to continue spiralling in years to come. But surely council tax payers cannot go on servicing debts in their local area of up to £29 million per annum when the Borders council tax take is only £52 million.

All of this points to an urgent need for a radical overhaul of our local government system instead of merely tinkering with the number of council tax bands. We hear that some councils are getting together with neighbours to explore the possibility of joint working on the delivery of services, and to indulge in bulk buying of supplies..

It might be better to amalgamate council areas and reduce the overblown level of bureaucracy by creating say a dozen units. The potential savings from a cull of hundreds of directors on salaries of £100,000 and more would certainly go some way to reducing those unaffordable loan charges and PPP repayments.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Museum project now the "Great Travesty of Scotland"


The latest Scottish local government 'customer satisfaction' polls, which have revealed plummeting levels of contentment among users of Borders front line council services on several flanks should provide a shuddering reality check for those members hoping to be re-elected next year. But will they?

A range of data for 2014/15, now available on the Local Government Benchmarking Framework [LGBF] website, places Scottish Borders Council at or near the bottom of national performance tables on a number of measurements.

SBC will no doubt argue that the polling samples are too small to give an accurate reflection of service users' satisfaction, but presumably the same sampling methods have been used in each of the 32 local authority areas.

Here's a taste of the survey findings so far as SBC is concerned. Satisfaction with leisure facilities: second lowest in Scotland at 52% (down from 70% in 2013/14 and from 76.9% in 2010/11); satisfaction with libraries: lowest in Scotland at 56% (down from 67% and 75.8% respectively); satisfaction with museums and galleries: second lowest in Scotland at 52% (down from 58% and 66.7%).

The position is equally depressing when it comes to education and refuse collection. According to the returns to LGBF the satisfaction rate with Borders schools was the second lowest in Scotland at 66% - five per cent lower than in 2013/14. And contentment with local refuse collection slumped from 84% to 77% in the space of a year after councilors took the crazy decision to withdraw garden refuse collections and thereby slash recycling of garbage from over 40% to a pathetic 37%.

A comparison tool which accompanies the data allows LGBF website browsers to look at spending levels on various services provided by local government.

While SBC spends £4,044 per kilometer on roads maintenance for every 1,000 of its citizens, the Scottish average stands at £5,618. The equivalent level of expenditure on trading standards in the Borders comes in at £3,815 compared to the median figure of £5,736.

But the one sector where the Borders council finds itself near the top of the spending pile is in corporate services (also known as administration) where eight per cent of the local budget of £200 plus million went on day to day running costs. The average Scottish figure hovers around five per cent while one local authority covering part of Ayrshire spends less than three per cent on admin.

All of this adds up to a 'could do better' end of term report for SBC.

Yet while bread and butter services are far from satisfactory, and more budget cuts and staff departures are on the way, there seems to be a steely determination on the part of the ruling group to completely ignore public opinion and economic reality by forging ahead with a £6.5 million custom-built museum to accommodate The Great Tapestry of Scotland.

A sharp intake of logic should have resulted in this extravagant luxury item on SBC's agenda being hastily withdrawn when the first cold breezes of austerity started wafting through the corridors at council HQ. The project was even identified as the number one target for savings when the public were invited to submit budget proposals to the council.

But in truth it is the long list of risks identified in the business case which have been discarded first in the headlong dash to impose a largely unwanted vanity project on taxpayers who will have to fork out an estimated £400,000 a year in loan charges with no guarantee that the latest Borders tourist "attraction" will be a success.

We are told Scottish Ministers are taking a fresh look at the financial implications of the scheme although it appeared at first sight that more than £3 million of Government cash would be available to deliver the tapestry dream. It is to be hoped Sturgeon's Cabinet can halt this act of folly in its tracks.

If the plan for the museum morphs into reality and becomes a feature in the current landscape of council tax freezes and declining public services then the current administration at SBC will undoubtedly be remembered for saddling their residents with The Great Travesty of Scotland.