Area forums expected to respond to community needs

IMPROVED versions of the former council area committees are to be set up as a way of allowing Scottish Borders Council to engage more with local communities, writes Mark Entwistle.

Last week, the council approved its new scheme of administration which changes its political decision-making processes. It includes five area forums, in Tweeddale, Eildon, Teviot and Liddesdale, Cheviot and Berwickshire.

The forums will comprise Scottish Borders councillors plus elected representatives from each community council that exists in a forum area.

Asked this week whether the forums were not simply the old area committees resurrected in another format, SBC leader David Parker pointed out that area committees had worked reasonably well in Tweeddale, Berwickshire and Teviot and Liddesdale, though they had been less successful in Eildon.

Mr Parker told TheSouthern the new forums retain all the powers of the committees but will invite one representative each from the community councils that make up a forum area.

“We will also allow forums to invite other representatives to be involved such as business people or people who represent particular interest groups,” he continued.

“All formal council consultations will in future go through the area forums and our partner agencies have agreed to do the same.

“We intend the forums to have two parts. There will continue to be the formal meeting in the evenings, but before each meeting there will always be a two-hour drop-in session where council staff and partner agencies can provide information to members of the public or local groups about various consultations that are ongoing or about issues that are important in a particular local forum area.

“The idea is still in development and we are keen to allow maximum flexibility to local forum areas because one size does not fit all and each forum will develop differently and will carry out its business dependent on local circumstance.”

Mr Parker explained that Teviot and Liddesdale, for instance, will probably continue to meet monthly and may do things that the rest do not do because of the unique interests in that area.

In Berwickshire, the forum will be based around the Berwickshire community council federation and the Berwickshire elected members intend to have a partnership forum working closely with the community councils.

The changes also bring a return of the appointment of a second depute leader. In the last council administration, Mr Parker had two depute leaders because there were three political groups in the administration.

This time there are three groups again, but the ruling coalition chose to go with just one depute leader in May.

But Mr Parker told us: “Having worked with that system since May, we are of the view that we should go back to two, mainly because Catriona [Mrs Bhatia, leader of Lib Dems group on council] is routinely involved in many of the meetings that John [Mr Mitchell, SNP leader and executive member for finance] and I are doing, so it makes sense to revert back to previous practice.

“It is also the case that because of my COSLA [Convention of Scottish Local Authorities] role, I am often out of the Borders and the depute leader here has a bigger job than in most other councils so it is helpful to have two to share out the workload for things that I cannot do.”