HERIOT Community Council may launch a legal challenge to last week’s decision by Scottish Borders Council’s planning committee to approve a radical alignment of the A7 to accommodate the Borders railway,
As we reported, the committee voted 4-3 to allow Transport Scotland to erect two roundabouts at Falahill, just north of the village. Two councillors abstained, while another excluded himself from the vote, taking a toilet break.
The Scottish Government agency had claimed the road lay-out had the majority support of residents of Falahill, which will now be bypassed by the A7, and that the plan would cut accidents and reduce costs because it would not require the re-routing of a high speed gas main.
One of 37 objectors, Heriot Community Council believed the realignment would lead to more convoyed traffic, more driver frustration and, hence, more road accidents.
It also contended the work was so far removed from the proposal for a 180-metre skewed bridge over a new section of track bed at Falahill, explicit in the Waverley Railway (Scotland) Act 2006, that the planning decision had effectively amended that legislation.
On Monday, Heriot Community Council met and instructed its treasurer, Graham Allison, to lobby MSPs over what it called “a circumvention of the parliamentary process”.
After the meeting, Mr Allison told TheSouthern: “The amendment of a parliamentary bill by the local planning process sets a dubious, dangerous and unsound precedent with serious implications if the decision was to go unchallenged.
“Any individual, any legal entity, any constructor of any project which has gained parliamentary approval can now, it appears, amend that project to meet their own ends with a planning application – in complete disregard of the parliamentary process and of any undertakings issued to the public by any parliamentary bill committee, thus overriding the safeguards delivered to the electorate.
“This undermines, subverts and negates the will of parliament. Public safety and opinion can now, it seems, be ignored and the parliamentary process can be be compromised, potentially even for financial gain.
“We look first to our government ministers and MSPs to acknowledge, debate and dismiss or ratify this circumvention of the parliamentary process.
“If that course of action is not pursued, we reserve our right to embark upon a legal challenge which we believe would be in the public interest.”
South of Scotland list MSP and rail supporter Christine Grahame (SNP), for one, does not agree with Mr Allison’s interpretation.
“With a project of this scale [the Borders railway], there may be a need to make relatively small adjustments along the route,” said Ms Grahame. “The planning process exists to give local oversight to plans and alterations. That is what has happened in this case and a local authority must comply with planning law in considering any application or indeed amendment to an application.
“However, it is misleading to suggest this subverts the will of parliament which was to reinstate a railway to the Scottish Borders. The issue of what is to be granted or refused in terms of the detailed plans is always one for the planning authority, in this case Scottish Borders Council (SBC).
“Some of those opposed to the railway have implied the money could be better spent elsewhere. However, they should be honest with Borderers as they must know that were the project not to go ahead, certain political and other interests in the west of Scotland would be very determined to see the money spent in that part of the country. There is no special pot of money for Borders projects.
“The return of rail to the Borders will bring needed jobs and investment.”
Lib Dem MSP and Borders councillor Jim Hume, as a member of SBC’s planning committee, led opposition to the Transport Scotland proposal, moving to refuse permission and citing the road safety impact of causing potential conflict points – the roundabouts – and the slowing of heavy vehicles at the highest point on the A7, particularly in snowy conditions.
He said: “There is an allowance for some deviation of the plan in the act, but only to a degree and I am undertaking research on Mr Allison’s points to see if the planning decision was within the limits of acceptable deviation.”
Mr Hume hit out at the committee’s abstainers. “In planning, if you are unhappy enough with a proposal to abstain, then I believe you should vote against a plan, allowing the applicant to address members’ concerns and come back with a better plan.”
Meanwhile, at the behest of Councillor John Mitchell, SBC solicitor Nuala McKinlay, who advises the planning committee on legal matters, is to contact other planning authorities in a bid to “benchmark” how they deal with members who leave the chamber during planning debates.
Mr Mitchell had sought clarification on acceptable toilet break absences from committee chairman Councillor Jock Houston who told him: “I’d much rather members did not leave the chamber at all. If they simply cannot resist a call of nature, then they should ask for a pause: a request which would always be granted, by me at least.”