Councillors defuse festive lights row with £400,000 investment

Scottish Borders Council agreed this week to invest £400,000 over the next two years providing safe connections for festive lighting in the Borders.

In so doing, elected members sought to mitigate the anger which has erupted during the last fortnight as communities from Innerleithen to Coldstream have, without prior consultation, had their existing fittings, tapping into street lighting supplies, removed by SBC workmen.

In an email exchange with councillors ahead of Tuesday’s executive meeting, when the decision to invest in the new connections was finally made, Mr Parker described the unheralded removals as “a shambles”.

But at the start of the debate, he asked members not to opine on that controversy and concentrate on SBC’s responsibility to ensure the safety of its citizens.

“We acted quickly which was unfortunate, but we did so for good reasons and now SBC will fully fund replacement connections and sit down with each affected community to review arrangements in time for Christmas,” he told TheSouthern after the meeting.

Rob Dickson, the new director of environment and infrastructure, who last week issued an apology for not giving advance notice of the work to the Innerleithen Civic Association (ICA), told councillors: “We will give communities every opportunity to discuss the work to be undertaken. However, we know that some connections are unsafe so we must address this now to ensure the lights and fittings do not continue to present any safety risk to the public or council employees working on the street-lighting network.”

It emerged on Tuesday that some communities, such as Innerleithen, pay ScottishPower for estimated power used during the festive season, while others do not.

Councillors agreed to carry out an audit of all existing arrangements by August and, on the casting vote of Mr Parker, they also resolved that all communities, and not SBC, must pay for electricity used to power their lights via the new dedicated connections. On Monday night, Mr Dickson, along with local councillors, attended an emergency meeting of the ICA at Innerleithen.

It was, said Councillor Graham Garvie (Tweeddale East), “one of the angriest meetings I have ever witnessed”.

But he said that once Mr Dickson apologised in person for the lack of prior consultation and discussed and explained in detail what was proposed with qualified electricians who maintained the town’s lights, the meeting became “very constructive”.

It was a view shared by ICA vice-chairman Ross McGinn. “Mr Dickson was left in no doubt about the strength of feeling against coming into a community justly proud of the quality of its lights and removing equipment.

“He accepted that the risk to the public was notional and confirmed that, as part of the deal agreed on Tuesday, new power supply boxes would be provided in close consultation with our own electricians.

“This may involve some dimunition in the display we can offer this year, but we have been assured the new connections will be in place by September.”

The row surrounding the summary removal of fittings manifested itself in an email exchange on Friday, the day after TheSouthern published Mr Dickson’s apology to the ICA.It was prompted by a letter to Peebles Community Council from SBC’s infrastructure manager Colin Ovens revealing that disconnections would take place in the town on Monday. That exercise, along with another planned for Duns the previous day, were postponed pending Tuesday’s executive meeting.

After hearing of the plans for Peebles, Councillor Garvie emailed Mr Dickson thus: “I respectfully request you to cease this work immediately unless there is an immediate and clearly-identified danger to life and limb until we have a full public discussion [at the executive on Tuesday] and you have been given a clear political steer.

“You are about to make the same perceived heavy-handed non-consultation mistake in Peebles as you have done in Innerleithen.”