Councillors to meet public hall users as charges update promised for April

CHANGES to the fees levied by Scottish Borders Council for the use of its 17 public halls will be implemented on April 1, writes Andrew Keddie.

That was the confident prediction this week of Sandy Aitchison (Borders Party), one of two councillors who, with a senior official, have been asked to assess the impact of charges, introduced in June, 2009, and the “devastating effect” they are having on the finances of local groups.

In November, TheSouthern revealed that in the 10 months after the massive charging increases were introduced, the council spent £800,000 in hall running costs, while recouping less than £180,000 in hire income – a loss of £640,000.

“We will meet representatives of user groups next week and we will report to the council’s watchdog scrutiny panel as a matter of urgency,” said Mr Aitchison.

The impact of the new charging structure, replacing a hall-by-hall system and rates unchanged since 2003, was highlighted by the case of Kevin Crawford who was forced to cancel a Hogmanay bash at Selkirk’s Victoria Halls. He claimed his total hire bill would be £1,200 for the use of the same facilities for 12 hours, as opposed to £476 two years earlier.

Also in November, a meeting of the scrutiny working group was told by SBC’s community venues manager Alan Scott that some other commercial hirers, especially in the bigger halls, such as those in Selkirk, Hawick, Kelso and Galashiels, had been lost. Hawick and Kelso had particularly lost out to local hotels in terms of wedding bookings.

Mr Scott confirmed a number of enquirers had been “put off” by the new hourly rate pricing, especially young people looking to host live music nights. The new system offered no discounts for youth groups. A number of long-standing lets had also been cancelled.

Mr Aitchison said he and Councillor John Paton-Day, who chaired the scrutiny working group which recommended the new charges in March, 2009, had been asked to confer with user groups and come back with recommendations. The pair will be advised by Brian Emmerson, SBC’s team leader for better government and democracy.

“The intention is to factor in any changes to the 2010-11 budget which will be set in February,” Mr Aitchison said. He said further rises would be resisted, the council was unlikely to make big cuts.

“Everyone knows the spending pressures we are facing and many of the problems have arisen because the charges had not been reviewed for so long. We were also trying to standardise a system of hall use which historically varied greatly from hall to hall.

“Our venues must observe the health and safety regulations which apply to hotels and clubs and, with our larger halls, that requires a caretaker to be on duty throughout a booking.

“There is also the issue of defining commercial and non-commercial hires, which are charged at radically different rates. For instance exercise classes are now deemed commercial while pipe band rehearsals are considered non-commercial and this requires clarification.

“Our task is to strike a balance between protecting the social fabric of the Borders and the need to ensure that loss of income does not have a knock-on effect on other council services.”

Mr Aitchison said that the delivery of all SBC’s cultural and community services was the subject of a major report, also due for submission next month.

“It may be that communities themselves, rather than the council, have the capacity and resources to manage their own venues.”

z Meanwhile, the role of the all-party scrutiny panel of backbench elected members, which has the power to call in decisions by SBC’s executive, has been strengthened. At is final meeting of the year, councillors agreed that a call-in can henceforth only be refused if it will have a “detrimental financial cost” to the council.