Petition launched as SBC opens door to tapestry ‘discussion’

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Officially launched on Monday, a petition calling for Scottish Borders Council to scrap its £3.5m Great Tapestry of Scotland investment has already attracted around 900 supporters.

It is a direct challenge to a council which voted 21-10 in December to borrow the cash – repayable at over £200,000 a year for 30 years – for a purpose-built visitor centre near the new rail terminus at Tweedbank to house the giant artwork.

The expenditure is included in SBC’s capital plan, due to be adopted next week, and construction work is scheduled to begin in the autumn of 2016.

Although leader David Parker has insisted it was a free vote in December, two dissenting Independent councillors from Hawick – Watson McAteer and Stuart Marshall – later resigned from the ruling administration claiming they had been pressurised into supporting the project.

Sponsored by Innerleithen community councillor Brian McCrow, the region-wide petition calls for elected members to overturn that decision claiming: “It is an unacceptable use of our council budget at a time when essential services are being cut.”

Mr McCrow said his issue was not with the tapestry itself, but with the £40,000 business case commissioned by the council and its projections for visitor numbers (47,000 a year) and viability (an annual surplus of £22,000 for the trust which will run the centre rent free).

“If we could see a positive return to the coffers of a council which will pay £17,000 a month in loan and interest repayments for 30 years, I might be persuaded, but sadly that isn’t the case,” said Mr McCrow.

“I share the view of those experts who believe the predicted figures are optimistic and that, if the project fails, it will fall back on Council Tax payers.”

Under current rules, no SBC decision can be revisited within six months without a suspension of standing orders which requires a two thirds majority of councillors.

The six-month rule also applies to the new Petitions and Deputations Committee which, although due to hold its first meeting in March, could not consider the tapestry petition until June.

“However, the council recognises the importance around topics of public interest and our rules allow a deputation on this matter to be made to that committee,” said an SBC spokesperson this week.

“This could allow further discussion and evidence to be heard around the details which led to the December decision.”

The spokesperson also revealed that while SBC had agreed to spend £3.5million towards the project’s delivery – with a further £2.5m coming from the Scottish Government – “further work is ongoing to try and reduce the council’s financial commitment”.

Mr McCrow said: “Even if it does not succeed I hope the petition will remind councillors who they are elected to serve and perhaps unsettle those who voted for the project, although not necessarily agreeing with it.”

The petition, which has its own Facebook page, can be accessed online by searching for Scottish Borders Tapestry Petition, while paper copies are being distributed at retail outlets across the region this week.