Only two councillors oppose cull of registry offices

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Councillors have agreed to axe four of the region’s 13 registry offices in a bid to save around £50,000 in staffing costs.

The closure of the facilities in Lauder, Jedburgh, Selkirk and Newcastleton was recommended in a report by Jenni Craig, Scottish Borders Council’s customer services manager.

She also successfully sought approval for “consideration” of the integration of the council contact centres with local public libraries in Jedburgh, Kelso, Selkirk, Melrose, Innerleithen, Coldstream and potentially Eyemouth, revealing that work was already under way to investigate if this would be “economical and operationally viable”.

The meeting heard the proposed revamp of the registration service would involve it merging the customer services.

“It is intended some customer service advisers will be trained to be able to deal with registering births,” said Ms Craig.

Lauder is in the firing line despite generating income of £5,912 in 2009, while incurring running costs of £4,882, and registering 31 marriages and 21 deaths.

Ms Craig said no deaths were registered there in 2009, civil ceremonies were declining and there are no toilet facilities for staff and customers. The Lauder office is only open for two hours a week and alternative facilities, with longer opening hours, were available in Galashiels and Melrose.

Jedburgh, which opens for eight hours a week, had been selected for closure, not least because running costs of £12,999 in 2009 far exceeded income of £5,219. The number of civil ceremonies (11) was low and there was no disabled access to the marriage room. Kelso and Hawick were cited as the best alternatives, while some trained customer service advisers will be able to register births at the town’s contact centre.

In Selkirk, income of £4,553 was dwarfed by costs of £7,812. Again, Ms Craig stressed the low number of civil ceremonies and the greater opening hours of Hawick or Galashiels.

And Newcastleton, which currently opens for two hours a week, had “very low numbers of registrations” (five births, 11 deaths and eight marriages in 2009). Councillors heard registrations could be made in Hawick and that the Grapes Hotel had recently received a licence for holding civil ceremonies. The village office cost £3,656 to run in 2009, but generated income of just £1,015.

However, Ms Craig said that due to the remoteness of Newcastleton, it was proposed that regular appointments could be offered and registrations done manually which meant a room is all that would be required. A preferred location had still be identified.

An assurance was given that in each of the four affected settlements the so-called “district identifier” would not change. “Therefore someone who lives in Selkirk and registers the birth of their child in Galashiels will still be able to select Selkirk as the district,” explained Ms Craig. And she said that in sensitive circumstances or where a customer could not get to their nearest office, emergency home visits could be offered.

Ms Craig’s report revealed that from next month, customers would no longer be able to pay cash for Council Tax, business rates and sundry debts at the region’s nine full-time contact centres and the two part-time satellite facilities in Innerleithen and Coldstream, which are open for 14.75 hours and 5.75 hours per week respectively. Instead the public will pay at the Post Office or via Paypoint and Payzone networks.

The cost saving to the council of contact centres sharing services with libraries had yet to be quantified, but the report stressed there was not enough business, now or in the future, for dedicated contact centres in the towns where merger with libraries is being investigated.

Only two councillors opposed the report’s recommendation, both focusing on the loss of registry offices in the communities they represent.

Councillor David Paterson (Ind, Hawick Hermitage), referring to the impact on Newcastleton, said he could not support a comparably inferior service for his constituents, while Councillor Kenneth Gunn (SNP, Selkirkshire) stated: “Asking for Souters of Selkirk to register births anywhere else but Selkirk would equate with asking that Cockneys could be Cockneys without the sound of Bow Bells.” Mr Paterson’s motion, seconded by Mr Gunn, to reject the proposals was defeated by 26 votes to two.

After the meeting Mr Gunn said that while he was pleased contact centre staff would be trained to register births, he was concerned that Selkirk’s local undertakers would be faced with extra burdens, including a minimum 12-mile round trip to Galashiels to register a death.

“I have made a plea that the registration of deaths should continue in Selkirk, if not at the contact centre then at the town’s health centre, but I get the impression that if that request was granted, it would be impossible to make the changes recommended by Ms Craig,” added Mr Gunn.