graham Garvie made a controversial start to his tenure as convener of Scottish Borders Council this week by demanding that the present system of local government in Scotland should be scrapped.
The Lib Dem member for Tweeddale East went further, telling an audience in Lauder: “I am firmly of the view that the Scottish Parliament should bring back our town councils...which were dispensed with in undue haste and without enough careful thought.”
And he announced he was proposing a reconstitution of a body called the Borders Burghs Convention which he hoped would petition Holyrood to set up a commission, before 2014’s Independence referendum, into all aspects of the future governance of Scotland.
Fulfilling his first official public engagement since being appointed to the £23,000-a-year figurehead role last month, Mr Garvie was addressing a packed Public Hall before, on behalf of SBC, conferring the Freedom of Lauder to four esteemed citizens as part of the town’s Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations.
He said that during his 44 years of involvement in local councils he had seen many changes – not all for the better.
He recalled that, before 1975, Scotland had four city councils, 33 county councils, 21 large burgh councils and 176 smaller town councils, such as Lauder. Outwith the Borders, he said there had been an additional 196 district councils.
He went on: “These were all swept away in 1975 and replaced by a two tier [regional and district] system of remote local authorities which, in turn, were replaced in 1996 by 32 equally remote councils and we in the Borders now have SBC.
“This was all, as we were told at the time of both reorganisations, in the interests of progress, but what we did lose was a heck of a lot of our traditions and rights. Quite simply, the baby was thrown out with the bathwater in 1975 and we lost not only our councils and royal burghs, but also their vital closeness to their people and their needs and aspirations.
“And we wonder why the turnout at local elections is so low!
“I am firmly of the view that the Scottish Parliament should bring back our town councils and our provosts – ancient and cherished parts of our heritage which were dispensed with in undue haste and without enough careful thought.
“And where and when better to start that this than in the Borders and this Royal Burgh and in this, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee year?
“To facilitate this I am proposing a reconstitution of the Border Burghs Convention which existed for many years till its cessation in 1975. If the people of Lauder and other burghs are sufficiently interested and of a similar mind, I would be delighted to initiate a reconvening of the Convention to see what we could do together as fellow Borderers to reignite our ancient traditions and local decision making.”
Asked to clarify his remarks this week, Mr Garvie said he was “deadly serious” about the setting up of a convention of burghs which, he hoped, would petition the Scottish Parliament to set up a commission, similar to those which preceded the 1975 and 1996 reorganisations, to consider Scotland’s future governance, including how police, health and education services are delivered.
“Local democracy has become too remote,” he told us. “How else do you explain that only 33 per cent of the electorate in Galashiels turned out for the SBC polls last month?
“I am not criticising the fine people who serve and work for the council, but the overall structure is clearly wrong and I feel I have every right to say so.”