Friday, 5 May 2017

Borders spinning industry just grows and grows!

Guest columnist CHEVIOT CHARLEY with a message for the new administration at council HQ

Some of our readers may be old enough to remember the days when members of town and county councils in the Scottish Borders spoke for themselves, could be contacted at virtually any time of the day or night by journalists and members of the public, and were responsible for promoting a positive image for their local authority.

It meant each councillor could be judged on his or her contribution over four years. There was little opportunity to escape the wrath of the voters if they 'got it wrong', and there was no lucrative salary to persuade candidates to stand for election. They were in it for the love of the game, and maybe even to serve the public by improving local services in their communities.

A local councillor was very much on the front line. The likes of Roxburgh County Council or Hawick Town Council - plus the region's other three county councils and ten town councils - did not have a single press officer between them to shield their elected members from awkward questions. Yet quality of service was arguably superior to the level being delivered nowadays.

During those heady local government days of the 1960s and early 1970s when the bins were emptied every week the Borders economy leaned heavily on spinning and weaving for its well-being. A job at the local mill was a job for life even if the wages were low so that bosses could prosper.

The labour intensive yarn and cloth making businesses may have virtually disappeared from the Borders valleys, but a completely new version of spinning and weaving has developed in recent years.

Scottish Borders Council, which will soon be back in business following this week's municipal elections, can claim the credit for the growth of the reconstituted Borders spinning (or should that be spin doctor's) trade.

A recent Freedom of Information request produced a response which showed the authority's so-called communications and marketing department, which did not even exist a couple of decades ago, now has "14.43 Full Time Equivalent" members of staff and an annual budget of £505,000.

In its reply the council told the requester: "this includes Communications, Digital Media, Graphic Design and Print Service staff". A well-equipped unit capable of covering up the misdeeds and errors of its employers.

Some of the job descriptions outlined in the FOI might convince the public that their councillors are no longer required to sell their plans, ideas, or decisions to the voters. The work is done for them.

Listen to this.It is the remit of two Senior Communications and Marketing Officers:

"To manage and co-ordinate the effective operational delivery of a special customer-focused internal and external communications and marketing service which aims to actively promote a positive image of the Council, and the Scottish Borders region and the people and communities we serve. To co-ordinate the agreed programme of work in order to support Elected Members and Departments to deliver their corporate performance objectives."

Above those two members of staff sits one Corporate Communications and Marketing Manager. The job description "To lead and manage a corporate customer-focused external and internal communications function, including design, print, web and digital media services, that will enable the efficient and effective delivery of the Council's corporate and departmental public relations objectives.

"To work proactively in partnership with senior management and elected members to identify, plan and deliver professional communications solutions to meet business needs and to ensure that communications is fully integrated into Departmental business strategies".

If you're having difficulty in interpreting all of that, then join the club. It probably means that your local councillor had better not go off message by criticising a decision or challenging some dubious policy idea. We're all customers of a business nowadays. How sad.

There was certainly a distinct lack of meaningful opposition during the previous administration's reign. No-one seemed prepared to put their head above the parapet even if they disagreed with what was being done in the public's name.

Some may wonder where are the mavericks like Haig Douglas or Rory Hamilton who used to grace the Borders council chambers, getting under the skin of pompous conveners and provosts, and even challenging scowling town or county clerks? They certainly did not suffer fools gladly.

It is to be hoped our newly elected band of local representatives - unfortunately many of them will be hamstrung by their respective political party stances - are not finely tuned robots. May they have the guts to speak out when necessary and actually represent the views of taxpayers by sticking an arm up and voting against a silly notion. Mind you it might be difficult with both hands tied behind their backs.

If at least some of them can escape the clutches of the growing band of spin doctors working on those "fully integrated business strategies" and promote their own thoughts and ideas then perhaps the image of Borders local government will improve. But don't hold your breath!

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