THE new convener of Scottish Borders Council, who last week called for a major shake-up of local government – including the replacement of his own council – has conceded “the time is not right” for the dismantling of Scotland’s 32 local authorities.
But Graham Garvie maintains that, within the present structure, town councils with provosts can be reconstituted and given spending powers to carry out local work without any extra cost to the public purse.
His comments came as Scottish local government minister Derek Mackay ruled out a reduction in the number of Scottish councils in the forseeable future.
Mr Mackay told the annual conference of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers (SOLACE) that he had instructed the Boundary Commission for Scotland to refrain from a review of council areas for the next five years and he insisted a structural shake-up would absorb resources at a time when public service reform was a top priority.
The announcement comes after the independent think tank Reform Scotland called last month for the current 32 councils to be reduced to 19, although the SBC area was not included in that rationalisation.
“I remain of the view that all aspects of the way Scotland is governed need to be reviewed if we are to halt the mass exodus of people from the ballot box and reconnect with those we serve,” said Councillor Garvie (Tweeddale East).
“I have received several messages of support for my call to reconvene the Borders Burghs Convention as a means of lobbying for change, bringing decision-making much closer to the people.
“But I do accept that now is probably not the best time for a root and branch change in local government on cost grounds, although it is ironic that public spending cuts are leading directly to yet more centralisation, with the police the latest public service to be taken further away from Scottish people.
“I think the loss of the heritage and traditions which we associate with our old town councils is directly linked to the low turnouts at the elections last month.
“I will be striving in my role as convener of SBC to try and reverse that trend.
“We have a new breed of professional, highly motivated and skilled people living in the Borders who would be willing and able to take up the cudgels of restoring local decision-making at no extra cost.
“If town councils could be re-established with proper budgets to reflect their pride in their burghs, that would be a good starting point and, if anyone shares this vision, I would ask them to contact me.”
Someone who does not share that vision is veteran public servant, former SBC leader Drew Tulley, who served on both Galashiels Town Council and the Ettrick and Lauderdale district authority which replaced it in 1975.
“Mr Garvie is looking at the past through rose-tinted spectacles,” he told us. “Town councils and the one-upmanship which went with them are why we now have seven swimming pools that we cannot afford to run and several unsuccessful housing estates.
“The present SBC may not be perfect, but it’s the best way forward, provided its councillors take on board the views of their communities and constituents.”