Time SBC cuts its cloth

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On the very day voters were electing councillors to sit on Scotland’s 32 local authorities Finance Secretary John Swinney released two tables of extremely disturbing statistics which illustrated the desperate state of local government finances.

In a written Parliamentary answer on May 3, Mr Swinney confirmed that Scottish councils had debts totalling more than £14billion, up from £9billion in 2007. It seems to all intents and purposes that the present local government set-up is unsustainable with mind-boggling cash sums being handed over by virtually every council each year to service their burgeoning debts.

In the Borders, the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition, which controlled the council with some independent members from 2007, does not seem to have paid much heed to the Cameron-Clegg mantra that places deficit reduction at the top of every agenda.

In 2007, according to Mr Swinney’s tables, Scottish Borders Council’s accumulated debts totalled a challenging £166.5million. But by 2011 the figure had spiralled by around 57 per cent to £262.551million, partly because of the controversial use of Public Private Partnership (PPP) arrangements to build schools in Berwickshire.

During its term of office, the previous administration also sought the Scottish Government’s consent to borrow several million pounds to cover losses in Icelandic banks, equal pay, and to severance payments for departing staff.

Between 2007 and 2011, SBC parted with £51.6million in interest payments merely to sustain those crippling deficits.

I am sure some clever mathematician will be able to calculate how many schools could have been built or how many teachers’ salaries could have been funded from such a vast pile of wasted cash.

The annual interest bill with the PPP burden added in stood at £12.3million in 2011. The fact that the finances of virtually every other Scottish council are in similar dire straits only serves to show that the system by which we receive local services has become untenable and apparently unmanageable. It also represents a frightening and unacceptable price to pay for the Council Tax freeze, one of the SNP’s flagship policies.

The full horrific picture can be found on the Scottish Government website at www.scotland.gov.uk/Resource/0039/00391370.pdf. The statistics show that SBC’s debt per head of population increased from £1,567 in 2007 to £2,403 in 2011 – some 53 per cent.

A private company with debts on this scale would have ceased trading years ago after being placed in administration prior to liquidation. The fact that SBC is this region’s largest “business” (and largest employer) with virtually every household relying on it to some degree makes the situation doubly worrying.

The major reorganisations of local government in the 1970s and the 1990s promised to deliver better services, more efficient governance and more openness and accountability. It is a matter of opinion whether any of those goals have been achieved. Surely the time has come for a truly radical remodelling of the entire crumbling structure before it collapses.

Bill Chisholm,

Honeyfield Road, Jedburgh