Biting back – SBC watchdog set to be revived

Scottish Borders Council headquarters in Newtown St Boswells.
Scottish Borders Council headquarters in Newtown St Boswells.

Just two years after it was introduced, the decision-making structure at Scottish Borders Council is set for a radical overhaul, The Southern can reveal.

From January next year, there will be fewer committees and fewer meetings.

It follows the revelation in a leaked report that the majority of SBC’s 34 elected members are dissatisfied with the current arrangements.

The new streamlined set-up will, it is claimed, be more accountable, with an all-party scrutiny committee – scrapped in 2012 – revived and beefed up.

That stand-alone watchdog will be able to question members of SBC’s powerful executive and have the power to review and call-in its decisions. It will also take over the function of the petitions committee – considered one of the few successes of the current structure.

Out will go the three main service committees – education, social work/housing and environment/infrastructure – which meet every two months.

Instead, their roles will be incorporated into so-called “themed” versions of the executive which will convene quarterly.

The current arrangements stem from the elections in May 2012 which saw the SNP form a ruling administration with the Lib Dems and Independents.

A condition of that coalition agreement was delivery of an SNP manifesto commitment to revamp the executive/scrutiny model, in place since 2001, and reintroduce self-scrutinising service committees.

Although opposed by the Conservatives, who wanted an independent call-in mechanism retained, the structure was introduced in October 2012, with an understanding it would be reviewed after 18 months.

That review has now taken place and a report, based on confidential discussions with all councillors, has been obtained by The Southern.

It reveals that “the majority of members expressed concern over the working of the committee structure”.

The report notes that SBC has 48 committees and groups, whereas Glasgow City, with 79 councillors and a population of nearly 600,000, has just 44.

The report states: “This evidence supports the feeling of members that the number of meetings is thought to be excessive.”

It says there is also a perception of a lack of independent scrutiny of decisions and adds: “A significant number of members felt it was generally difficult to have ‘sightedness’ of what is happening across the council”.

Council leader David Parker was due to meet the leaders of the four political groupings yesterday (Wednesday) to discuss their feedback, although it is understood there is a cross-party consensus for the changes. Area forums, the planning committee and its local review body will be unaffected, but the number of councillors on the licensing board is likely to be reduced.

Approval by the full council of the proposed scheme is expected next month – and the changes are due to come into force on January 1.