Reflections of a difficult six months

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THE second half of 2011 began with a local government bombshell – the retirement of Scottish Borders Council’s £116,000-a-year chief executive David Hume at the age of 58.

His departure, after nine years at the helm, was attributed to “a change in personal circumstances”. The void was filled by three senior officials, one of whom, director of resources Tracey Logan, later beat off the challenge of 40 hopefuls to secure the top job.

We also revealed that 194,170 hours were lost through sickness at the council in the preceding four financial years at a cost of £15.4million.

NHS Borders confirmed it had spent £1.67million in 2010 hiring bank and agency nursing staff, but there was positive news with the health board backing a £4.5million palliative care unit, thus spawning the Margaret Kerr Appeal: a tribute to the nurse who left nearly £600,000 in her will to support the creation of a hospice in the region.

An action group was formed to fight a proposal for 20 turbines near historic Hermitage Castle. Developer Infinis Ltd also announced its intention to submit plans for a similar development at Cummings Hill in the scenic Jed Valley.

Galashiels minister Leslie Steel said he would consider standing down if the Church of Scotland approved gay ordinations and the local branch of The Samaritans highlighted its 24/7 service after a man plunged to his death from a bridge near Galashiels.

South of Scotland Liberal Democrat MSP Jim Hume defended running up hotel bills of £13,000 for overnight stays in Edinburgh, despite owning five flats in the city.

The long-running Kelso supermarket saga finally ended when Sainsbury’s opened its new store at Pinnaclehill, but, on the economic downside, union boss Tony Trench called for tougher laws to prevent firms like Perident, which is halting production at Tweedbank with the loss of 115 jobs, from abandoning Scotland. The jobs are going to Malaysia where average wages are £1.12p per hour.

Two care homes – Galahill House in Galashiels and Hawick’s Deanfield – claimed they had improved their service following critical reports by Social Care and Social Work Improvement Scotland. Both had been branded “weak” after watchdog inspections.

The region’s largest bus operator First announced it would run the 95 Hawick-Carlisle service commercially, saving SBC £40,000 a year in subsidy. But another cost-saving measure by the local authority – the merger of libraries and contact centres in seven Borders towns – was met with a hostile reaction in Selkirk.

Meanwhile, SBC called for an urgent meeting with justice minister Kenny MacAskill over his government’s plans to create a single police force for Scotland and there was criticism, too, of community safety minister Roseanna Cunningham for refusing to exempt common ridings from legal requirements framed to tackle public order problems at sectarian marches.

September’s highlights included the discovery in Selkirkshire of the pommel of a crusader’s sword by Ashkirk metal detectorist George Burns, and a visit to Peebles by Cardinal Keith O’Brian to bless relocated Halyrude Primary School.

In October, we revealed secret plans by the Scottish Youth Hostel Association to close its facility in Melrose.

It was later confirmed the hostels at Yetholm and Broadmeadows, near Selkirk, would also be axed.

There was pressure, too, on local MSP Christine Grahame after her former aide Mark Hirst alleged she had misused parliamentary funds in pursuit of her May election victory.

Parents heard about SBC plans to standardise secondary school timetables, but an outcry over how this would impact on school transport and child-minding saw the plans shelved for at least another year.

The horrors of war were conveyed to students of Galashiels Academy by former pupil Ali Munro who lost his leg and was blinded in one eye while serving in Afghanistan.

In excess of 2,000 public service workers, including the majority of teachers, took part in a strike to protest at plans to change their pension schemes.

The region’s exposure to the economic crisis was manifest in December with the revelation that the Scottish Court Service has drawn up plans to close the sheriff courts in Selkirk, Peebles and Duns, and the news that our registered social landlords, struggling to borrow money at affordable rates from banks, were to be given access to SBC’s borrowing facilities.

And the council admitted mistakes in the way salt bins were redistributed – with many left empty – during the first snows of winter.