Questions have been raised over the quality and quantity of information made available to elected members of Scottish Borders Council when they consider major capital projects.
The issue is highlighted in the findings of a small working group of councillors who have been probing the decision-making process which saw the local authority in 2014 commit £3.5million to a new visitor centre for the Great Tapestry of Scotland at Tweedbank.
Their report will be presented today (Thursday) to SBC’s watchdog scrutiny committee, which ordered the investigation last October.
Significantly, that was before the Scottish Government announced in February this year that it was subjecting the business case for Tweedbank to a process of “due diligence” before releasing its funding share of £2.5m, and June’s announcement that a site in central Galashiels had now emerged as a likely alternative.
The report casts light on what happened before councillors sat down for the first time to consider the project on May 29, 2014.
It had all begun in “late 2013” when SBC convener Councillor Graham Garvie, after informal discussions with the tapestry trustees, asked council officers to follow up the possibility of the Borders permanently hosting the artwork.
This work was duly carried out between February and April 2014 involving senior officers across a range of departments.
An initial feasibility study was prepared and, from a desktop exercise “in respect of possible sites” Tweedbank emerged as the most viable option.
That work formed the basis of a report to councillors on May 29 when it was agreed, by 21 votes to 7, to commission Jura Consultants to draw up a detailed business case, concentrating solely on Tweedbank.
When that £40,000 report came back with upbeat predictions on viability to the full council on December 18, 2014, councillors voted 21-10 to allocate £3.5m from its capital programme to the venture at Tweedbank.
Focusing of these key decision-making meetings, today’s report states: “The working group has concluded that the details provided to elected members in reports – based on the information that was available at the time – were sufficient to allow members to make their decisions.”
However, it notes: “With hindsight, it is possible to identify areas which could have enhanced the information in reports [to councillors].
“Where potential projects, such as the tapestry, are at the stage of evolving from a conversation into a concept/idea, before proceeding to the project stage and into the capital plan, it would be helpful if all material conversations between officers and elected members could be summarised and noted. This would aid transparency.
“When officers are producing the first formal report to be considered by members on a major project, they should include sufficient and appropriate information on the origin of all the [location] options which have been considered and any which have been subsequently dismissed.”