Relief in sight for Borders community groups over cost of hiring public halls

Victoria Hall, Selkirk
Victoria Hall, Selkirk

COUNCILLORS will be urged next week to cut the cost of hiring public halls for non-profit-making community groups – but commercial operators face an hourly hire hike of £5 to use the larger venues.

It follows a review of the pricing structure covering community venues by Scottish Borders Council’s watchdog scrutiny panel which set up a small working group last year to assess the impact of swingeing charge increases introduced in June 2009, after a moratorium for the previous six years.

That structure sought to rationalise charging and replace a hall-by-hall system which had remained unchanged since 2003.

The upshot was that commercial hirers were billed £40 an hour for the region’s four main halls in Selkirk, Hawick, Galashiels and Kelso, and £30 for so-called Band B facilities in Duns, Jedburgh and Innerleithen, excluding separate hourly charges for ancillary facilities including lesser halls, meeting rooms and kitchens.

As a result, one private hirer cancelled a Hogmanay bash in the Victoria Halls, Selkirk, on December 31, 2009, claiming the cost of a 12-hour hire had risen threefold to £1,200 and was thus unaffordable.

Non-commercial hirers were charged £18 an hour for the bigger halls, along with incrementally lower rates for the ancillaries.

But in November last year, TheSouthern revealed that 10 months into the new charging system the cost of running the region’s 17 halls outstripped income to the tune of £640,000.

The scrutiny working group then took soundings from regular hall users, including the organisers of amateur operatic societies and drama groups whose annual productions are such a staple of cultural life in the Borders.

A survey, which elicited 78 responses from different organisations and individuals revealed that more than 60 per cent felt the charges levied were “on the high side” or “very high”.

“In order to maintain a balance of income against cost and to continue to encourage community use, we agreed to recommend changes to charges for community bookings,” explained working group chairman Councillor Sandy Aitchison.

A report to last week’s scrutiny meeting explained that commercial rates for the bigger halls in the Borders, even with the 2009 increase, were relatively low compared to seven other “benchmark” council areas, including Dumfries and Galloway, Moray and Inverclyde.

The panel thus agreed to recommend that hourly commercial rates for the Band A halls should rise to £45 and £12 for meeting rooms, and for Band B halls to £35 and £9 respectively. Commercial charges will remain the same for the other halls, although meeting room charges will rise by 50 per cent.

Nominally, the hall hire charges for non-commercial use will remain at current levels, but the watchdog unanimously agreed to apply a 25 per cent discount to the total cost of hire for any booking of 10 or more hires in a venue in any year.

The kitchen hire rate for community users will be cut by 50 per cent to £5 an hour for the bigger venues.

This means the producers of local operas in Innerleithen, Galashiels, Selkirk, Hawick, Kelso and Melrose will, in total, pay around £4,000 less than they do at present.

The new charges, if approved by Scottish Borders Council next month, will take effect from October 1, although it was acknowledged last week that all venues are currently subject to SBC’s so-called transforming community services project which could see them transferred in future out of council control and into one or more community trusts.