Land gaffe threatens health centre

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THE boss of NHS Borders admitted this week that “nothing can happen” with the provision of a £2.13million health centre in Lauder until the ownership of the site, at the town’s public park, is resolved.

Chief executive Calum Campbell was commenting after the shock revelation that the land is not owned by Scottish Borders Council, but has been part of the Royal Burgh’s common good assets since 1929.

The discovery was made by the solicitor engaged by SBC for a year to sort out a plethora of ownership issues relating to the accounts of the region’s eight common good funds and miscellaneous trusts, the administration of which has passed to SBC from for the old town councils, via district authorities.

And it has cast serious doubt over the delivery, not only of the health centre, but of a new sports pavilion, floodlit pitch and play area, worth nearly £1million, which the council has agreed to provide on the park, using the anticipated £250,000 cash receipt from NHS Borders.

For the trustees of the Lauder Common Fund – all 34 elected members of Scottish Borders Council – must now embark on a complicated and protracted legal process which SBC leader David Parker admitted this week could take 18 months.

“The process will involve us making application to the Court of Session to be allowed to sell common good ground to NHS Borders for the health centre,” said Mr Parker this week.

“We will have to sort out a detailed case as to why this is necessary and what the benefits to the wider Lauder community of the sale will be. The court will then decide whether it is happy to support this and is likely to invite the views of the local community.

“It is quite an undertaking and could take a year to 18 months and the trustees will need to liaise with the community and the NHS to determine if we go down this route ... we will almost certainly make a decision by the end of April about whether to proceed with the court process, but it is the only thing that will unlock the delivery of the new health centre.”

Mr Parker said he and his fellow trustees on the Lauder Common Good working group – Leaderdale and Melrose councillors Nicholas Watson and John Paton-Day – would now consult with the community council, but he accepted the full council would have to be consulted to give the go-ahead for the court petition.

Mr Watson said the ownership bombshell, revealed in an email from Mr Parker to community leaders early last week, had come as “a bolt from the blue”.

“This makes the issue of selling the land for any purpose a very sensitive issue and makes a total muddle of the plans to develop the park,” said Mr Watson. “I for one believe we must consult with every household in Lauder before we petition the court, in order to be totally transparent and carry a community which has been unwittingly misled.”

Last year a local campaign group, Protect Our Greenfield Site (POGS), launched a petition against the choice of the public park for the health centre with 678 people out of 765 surveyed signing up. POGS consistently claimed the land was in common good ownership, but Mr Parker said at that time that “extensive legal searches” proved the park was owned by SBC. Despite, 155 objections, the council’s planning committee, although with reservations about the proposed design of the health centre, gave it and the sports projects planning consent in December.

In an email last week, Mr Parker alluded to “a range of complicating factors” regarding NHS funding for the medical facility if the project was delayed, but this week he told TheSouthern: “NHS Borders has identified an option which will allow the development to go ahead ... they were not going to be building until 2012/13, therefore it will be possible to have the legal process concluded in time to support the timescale.”

But Mr Campbell told us: “We have received support to take forward three health centre schemes [Lauder, Galashiels and Jedburgh] over the next financial year [2011/12].

“We want to get moving on this project as quickly as possible. However, nothing can happen until the ownership of the site is resolved.”

One recipient of Mr Parker’s email, who did not wish to be named, said the ownership revelation cast into sharp focus the decision of SBC last year to sell the nearby old primary school to the Eildon Housing Association for housing.

The source said this had been the site favoured by the majority of people in Lauder for the health centre.

SBC received £235,000 for the school site, but helped Eildon with the aquisition to the tune of £125,000 from second homes Council Tax money which promotes affordable housing.

Mr Parker responded: “The issue of the old primary school is a red herring as it was not a site NHS Borders wanted to take forward for the new health centre.”