break and abstentions fuel row

ON Monday, just four of SBC’s 13-member planning committee voted in favour of Transport Scotland’s bid to radically realign the A7 arterial road to Edinburgh.

Yet, as reported above, that was enough to give the go-ahead for the proposal, which was strongly opposed by the community councils in the Gala Water valley on road safety and visual impact grounds.

The 4-3 vote to endorse the development has led to criticism from a member of the influential committee – and a mild rebuke to those who chose not to vote from chairman Jock Houston.

Three of the committee – councillors Jim Brown (Jedburgh), Ron Smith (Hawick and Hermitage) and Jim Fullarton (East Berwickshire) – were on leave and did not attend.

And when it came to the final vote, two of the 10 who showed up – councillors Neil Calvert and John Mitchell – decided to abstain.

Meanwhile, another member, Berwickshire’s Trevor Jones, ruled himself out of voting as he had left the chamber for a comfort break during the debate.

On the division which followed, Mr Houston joined councillors Tom Weatherston, Donald Moffat and Carolyn Riddell-Carre in backing the proposals. The dissenting trio comprised councillors Jim Hume, Nicholas Watson and Gavin Logan.

After the meeting, Mr Houston told us: “I would rather members did not abstain, especially when controversial applications are being considered, although, of course, it is entirely their own decision.”

And Mr Watson said: “The debate lasted more than an hour with a clear feeling of unease about the applicaton and to finish with three abstensions shows a pretty weak planning committee. It’s not always easy, but councillors shouldn’t duck their duty, especially when such important decisions are taken.”

Before the crucial division, Mr Calvert, seconded by Mr Mitchell, had moved for deferral, the former claiming that the committee, in order to make a balanced judgment, should be given details of the other eight potential schemes which Transport Scotland had considered before submitting its chosen option.

Mr Mitchell favoured postponement because the of conflicting estimates on the level of carbon emissions the development would generate.

The pair’s motion was defeated 7-2 and both said they had later abstained because the committee did not have enough information to make an informed decision.

“In these circumstances, I felt I had no option but to abstain, which is my democratic right,” said Mr Calvert.

Mr Mitchell agreed. “No member should be criticised for abstaining and I am unhappy at being accused of ducking my duty,” he told us. “Far from it: it was precisely because this was an important and contentious application that I believed the question of carbon emissions had to be clarified.”

Mr Jones’s stance relates to advice issued by Mr Houston last year when Mr Moffat, having arrived late for a meeting, was told he could not take part in a planning determination because he had missed a significant part of the discussion.

“I was out the room for eight minutes to use the toilet and, given the advice regarding Mr Moffat, I felt it was better to play safe and opt out of voting,” said Mr Jones. “There was nothing sinister in this.”

Mr Mitchell said he would now seek “urgent clarification” on how long a member could leave the chamber before being disqualified from making planning decisions.