THE local authority has been accused of using bogus health and safety claims to partly justify the possible spending of more than £50,000 to replace tables and chairs used in its council chamber at Newtown St Boswells.
The accusation comes from the panel set up by the Health & Safety Executive to challenge dubious claims that decisions have been taken due to health and safety rules.
Last month, TheSouthern reported local authority leader David Parker as defending the decision to spend more than £80,000 on improvements to offices, with a possible additional £50,000 to refurbish the main council debating chamber.
The figures were issued in response to a question from the Conservative group leader on the local authority, Councillor Michelle Ballantyne, at a full council meeting.
As far as the issue of refurbishments to the council chamber were concerned – which were estimated in excess of £50,000 – these have now been carried out.
The reasons given by Mr Parker in September were that the old tables were heavy and not designed to be assembled and re-assembled as frequently as they were and had been “condemned on health and safety grounds.”
Mr Parker told us back then: “They are more than 20 years old and have been routinely assembled and reassembled up to five times a day over that period so we have certainly had our money out of them. From a moving and handling perspective, we cannot continue with them.
“We will also replace the chairs which again are 20 years old and have seen better days, and we intend to replace the carpet as it is frayed, marked and very badly worn in a number of places.”
However, Mrs Ballantyne had slammed the spending of the money – on what she said were perfectly adequate areas of the council buildings – as a “disgrace”, coming as it did at a time when local communities were being advised to make do or wait because money is tight.
And this week news of the review of SBC’s spending proposals came from the Health & Safety Executive (HSE).
On the agency’s website, its ‘Myth Busters Challenge Panel’ called into question the claims made by Mr Parker that health and safety concerns were among the reasons the furniture may be replaced.
The panel was set up to provide a mechanism for anyone – whether on behalf of a company or organisation, or as an individual – who receives advice or is told that a decision has been taken in the name of health and safety which they believe to be disproportionate or inaccurate, to challenge that advice.
The panel stated: “If the council is purchasing new furniture and carpets because the current stock is old and worn out, it should declare this as the case. Not hide behind health and safety.
“There is no specific regulation which relates to the weight of furniture. The cost of replacement could be avoided if the council as an employer was to provide adequate staffing levels and training for the movement of the furniture and carry out repairs to the carpet.”
Commenting this week, Mrs Ballantyne said the present council ruling administration had promised transparency and that it should start by admitting the real reasons for the new improvements were that someone just fancied comfier chairs, better tables and a nicer carpet.
“If you asked most people what they would rather see £50,000 spent on, when we have schools needing classrooms refurbished and disabled access for toilets, I can pretty much guarantee comfier new chairs for councillors to sit on and a new carpet would not be a priority,” she said.
But responding to the H & S panel comments this week, Mr Parker told us: “We didn’t say that it was exclusively health and safety and accepted that part of the reason for replacing the furniture was that it was at the end of its useful life for the council chamber purposes.
“However, as part of the assessment we did look at the tables from a manual handling point of view and it was clear that we could not continue with our current practice of assembling them and reassembling them with the current staff compliment.
“Employing additional staff would not have been a cost effective solution and given the age and damage to the tables replacing them was the best way forward.
“The carpet again was in a poor state and the ongoing cost of repairs to it was seen as prohibitive.
“Before making a decision to replace we carefully looked at all aspects of the change and health and safety was one of the considerations, and that was supported by the assessment that we had carried out.”