Anger as watchdog’s take on public hall charges is challenged by leader

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A REPORT urging that the region’s public hall charges should be raised for commercial operators and cut for community users was put on hold this week.

And that deferral, announced by Scottish Borders Council leader David Parker at a meeting of the executive, has angered the backbench councillor who headed a probe by the watchdog scrutiny committee into the pricing structure.

“We took soundings from more than 70 users of the council’s 17 public halls and undertook a very detailed financial analysis, and I am disappointed our recommendations have been cast aside,” said John Paton-Day (Lib Dem).

The working group was set up last November to review a simplified pricing structure introduced 10 months earlier, replacing a hall-by-hall system which had remained unchanged since 2003.

Under the rationalised structure, commercial hirers were billed £40 an hour for the region’s four main halls in Selkirk, Hawick, Galashiels and Kelso and £30 for so-called band B facilities in Duns, Jedburgh and Innerleithen, excluding separate hourly charges for ancillaries including lesser halls, meeting rooms and kitchens.

Non-commercial hirers were charged £18 an hour for the bigger venues and incrementally lower rates for the add-ons.

But 10 months into that pricing regime, the cost of running the halls had outstripped income by more than £600,000.

And Mr Paton-Day’s working group discovered that 60 per cent of the users surveyed felt the charges were “on the high side” or “very high”.

In June this year, the scrutiny panel agreed to recommend that hourly commercial rates for the four band A halls should rise to £45 (£12 for meeting rooms) and for band B halls to £35 and £9 respectively.

Nominally, the hire charges for non-commercial use would remain at current levels, but the group agreed to apply a 25 per cent discount to the total cost of hire for any booking of 10 or more hires in any year.

The upshot was that the producers of local operas in Innerleithen, Galashiels, Selkirk, Hawick, Kelso and Melrose would collectively pay around £5,000 less than they do at present.

But when the executive met on Tuesday to consider the recommendations, members agreed to Mr Parker’s call for the matter to be deferred and taken off the agenda pending further investigation.

Mr Paton-Day, there to observe the debate, later told TheSouthern he was “angry and disappointed” at the decision.

“An exhaustive amount of work over several months went into the group’s deliberations as we sought to balance income against cost and encourage community use,” he said.

“It looks like scrutiny, not for the first time, has been sidelined by Mr Parker and his executive.”

But Mr Parker countered: “The [scrutiny working group] report was withdrawn for technical reasons as it has not been through the relevant consultation process and its financial implications were incomplete and not robust.

“It was also the case that there may be other options to reducing charges that could be more beneficial.

“With a little bit of work behind the scenes, we will be able to bring back a report very quickly that will recommend reducing hall charges and will have, I’m sure, the unanimous support of everyone.

“I don’t believe the scrutiny recommendations provide the maximum benefit they could for community groups and there might be a better way of doing this than is currently being suggested.”

And he added that Mr Paton-Day’s input to these further deliberations and the reworking of the financial implications would be welcome.

“We are genuinely trying to be helpful in ultimately securing the outcome that scrutiny wants ... by making sure the further work is undertaken in the quickest possible timescale.”

The new charging structure is due to introduced on October 1.