Council’s blueprint to give communities a voice ‘very similar’ to scrapped predecessor

JUST nine months after scrapping three of its five area committees, Scottish Borders Council (SBC) is seeking public feedback on a new way of engaging with the communities it serves before making decisions.

Under the proposals, the two surviving area committees - Teviot & Liddesdale and Cheviot – will join the Tweeddale, Eildon and Berwickshire bodies in the dustbin of local government history.

To replace them, a working group of councillors is recommending that five new forums with the unsurprising title of community engagement committees (CECs) should be set up and become operational by August or September.

Like area committees, they will cover the same five zones, with decision-making powers vested, as before, solely in the elected ward members of SBC.

Indeed, Lib Dem councillor Vicky Davidson, SBC’s executive member for economic dev-elopment, admitted this week that the proposed set-up looked “remarkably similar” to its discredited predecessor.

Details of the proposals are now out to consultation, with the public invited to submit comments by May 6.

The abolition of three area committees last August was made to save costs and reflected a lack of interest in their monthly meetings, although Teviot & Liddesdale and Cheviot were spared the axe because they were, apparently, more adept at putting behinds on the public benches.

The decision was also helped by the fact that all planning powers had been removed from the area bodies a year earlier. Tweeddale chairman Graham Garvie was unaware his already emasculated committee was to be axed until the day of the decision which effectively created a two-tier system of democratic accountability in the region.

It was a situation roundly condemned by leaders of community councillors in the Eildon and Tweeddale areas who, despite not having a vote, had at least been able to contribute to area committee debates.

Perhaps as an olive branch, Councillor Garvie was asked to chair a working group to “review the council’s engagement with the Borders community and bring forward suitable recommendations”.

That group has now completed its work and this week published its recommendations with the promise that “SBC is keen to ensure it leads, or is part of, local governance arrangements which operate effectively and with a clear role; is locally focused where appropriate; builds, where possible, on existing partnerships; and does not necessarily impose a uniform solution across the whole of the Borders. Service users and local communities need to be engaged in the design and shape of local services.”

And the optimum vehicle for these aspirations is, apparently, a community engagement committee, which must be “relevant, effective and focused on the future”.

The paper reveals that, before coming up with the CEC model, the working group had researched devolved decision-making arrangements in Edinburgh, Highland, Orkney and Norfolk.

The group concludes that CECs should act in the five capacities:

l Advisory: A CEC will be an ear for the community, giving it a sounding board for its concerns and producing its own community plan which would set priorities for SBC services and funding.

l Consultative: SBC will use CECs to consult communities on specific relevant policies, budget planning and the quality of the delivery of local services.

l Decision-making: Although only SBC members have voting rights on a council decision-making committee, community representatives could lobby councillors on specific issues, either through written arguments or speaking at CEC meetings.

l Informative: A CEC will act as “a conduit for the dissemination of relevant information” from the council of other public bodies, such as the police, NHS or Scottish Water.

l Reflective: Annual reviews of SBC services will be fed back to the CEC whose recommendations will be audited to check they have been implemented.

The consultation paper outlines how CECs will be run “slightly differently” than other SBC committees, with members of the public expected to join in debates, give opinions and ask questions. “The venue will be more akin to a debating chamber than a normal council meeting.”

Apart from ward councillors, every community council will be invited to send a representative, along with those from other recognised community groups, to meetings which will take place quarterly “thus ensuring enough items of business”. Community halls will be considered as venues and meetings could take place in afternoons during the winter .

Business to be considered by CECs will including small local schemes, the use of pay parking income, town twinning matters, street naming, community grants above £500, ceremonial matters and traffic management schemes.

“Another potential agenda item could be a Your Voice section whereby members of the public are given the opportunity to speak for up to five minutes on a relevant local or Borders-wide issue,” states the paper. Training will be offered to CEC members, although the paper cautions that the likely costs of the new regime and funding sources have not yet been quantified.

SBC leader David Parker, one of the fiercest critics of area committees, said: “This consultation paper shows the council is keen to broaden its engagement with Borders people and to listen to their views in developing a replacement structure for area committees. Participation ... by councillors, community group representatives and members of the public will be essential to its success.”

The working group is due to be submit a final report, based on the consultation responses, before the summer recess.

l To view the consultation paper go to www.scotborders.gov.uk/consultations or, to get one sent, call Jenny Wilkinson on 01835 825004.