Opera groups ‘left in limbo’ as SBC delays decision on hall hire charges

COMMUNITY groups looking to hire local halls for productions and events over the winter and spring have been left in limbo by last week’s decision to pull a report reviewing hall pricing structures.

That was the view of Councillor John Paton-Day, who chaired a scrutiny panel working group investigation into the new hall pricing structure introduced by Scottish Borders Council (SBC) early last year.

The working group was set up in November, to examine the impact of the simplified charging regime and why the cost of running the halls had outstripped income by more than £600,000.

The working group discovered that 60 per cent of users surveyed felt the charges were “on the high side” or “very high”.

So, in June this year, the scrutiny panel councillors agreed to recommendations that would mean producers of such local groups as amateur operatic societies in places such as Innerleithen, Galashiels, Selkirk, Hawick, Kelso and Melrose collectively paying about £5,000 less than at present.

The new charging structure was due to introduced on October 1, but the SBC executive, meeting last week to consider the recommendations, agreed to council leader David Parker’s call for the matter to be deferred and taken off the agenda pending further investigation.

Mr Parker told TheSouthern the report was withdrawn for technical reasons as it has not been through the relevant consultation process and its financial implications were incomplete and not robust.

The upshot was a request to Councillor Parker and his director of resources, Tracey Logan, to shed more light on the decision at last Thursday’s scrutiny panel meeting.

The council leader was unable to be there, but Ms Logan answered councillors’ questions, amid claims that delaying the report will cause widespread consternation among local groups trying to find out what their costs will be for the use of public halls over the coming months.

“On looking at some of the details, it was felt the report was not complete in reflecting the budget position,” Ms Logan told councillors.

“There were concerns that some of the changes to the charges had not been explained and it was felt there needed to be more input into the report to do that fully.

“There needs to be a clearer rationale behind some of the reasons. It is not a question of not progressing it.”

However, Councillor Paton-Day said: “To say I am not best pleased about this would be an understatement. A lot of work has been done over many months and a lot of group hirers have been waiting for the outcome of this so they can organise themselves for the coming year. I really feel for them”.

Ms Logan said the report should have gone before the local authority’s corporate management team in the first instance. “But it slipped through the net – it was simply missed,” she said.

“There is no other agenda around picking this report. It was just felt that the quality of the report needed to be improved. This is an officer issue, not a member issue.”

But Councillor Paton-Day said he was concerned hirers had been “left in limbo” over this issue. “Now they just don’t know what is going on and are facing higher charges.”

Ms Logan said she appreciated the report had been a long time in the making and said it would be brought forward as soon as possible.

Councillor Kenny Gunn agreed the report had to be brought forward as quickly as possible. “I have a number of amateur operatic societies in my area who are starting a new season without knowing whether they can even afford to hire halls for next spring.”

Ms Logan pledged the new report would be brought forward in time for October 1. Councillor Paton-Day said he was happy with her assurances, but added: “I am concerned this shows a cavalier attitude to working with scrutiny.”