The prospect of all Scottish Borders Council’s roads services, including winter gritting and emergency pothole repairs, being taken out of local control proved too much for senior elected members this week, writes Andrew Keddie.
They had been asked to consider a Scottish Government proposal for the services, which employ more than 400 staff, to be transferred to an Edinburgh, Lothians, Borders and Fife (ELBF) limited liability partnership – a formal collaboration with five other local authorities to “reduce costs and drive through efficiencies”.
Commercial services director Andrew Drummond-Hunt, in a report to SBC’s executive on Tuesday, said: “This flows from Scottish Government initiatives towards shared services generally.”
He said SBC and the five other councils had many functions in common, including repairs and surveying, salt and gritting, traffic light maintenance and weather forecasting, and officers from each local authority already met informally to share information and experiences.
However, under the ELBF model, such collaborations would be formalised and extended to include asset management, joint procurement, new road and street works, road safety, street lighting and staff training.
But Mr Drummond-Hunt cautioned: “The council will need to ensure it retains access to resources to deliver roads services to the Borders to at least the same standard as at present. In particular it would need to ensure it retains the capability to maintain gritting levels and responsiveness to reactive maintenance such as pothole repairs.”
He also stressed that the role of SB Contracts, the council’s 60-strong trading division which carries out the bulk of road repairs in the region and bids for contracts outwith the Borders, must not be compromised. Currently the only arm’s-length organisation of its kind in the ELBF area, SB Contracts is projected to make a surplus of £652,000 this year to support a range of other council services and budgets.
However, Mr Drummond-Hunt warned that if SBC did not “constructively engage” with the ELBF process, it was likely the Scottish Government would step in and order a radical restructuring of roads authorities across Scotland.
To obviate such a sanction he recommended – and councillors agreed – that SBC, while declining to join ELBF at present, should adopt a “watching brief” which would allow the proposal to be revisited in future.
The executive also agreed that an internal review of all roads services should be undertaken to determine the “best operating model” for in-house services.
The results of the review will be reported back to the executive by the end of this year.