Education to go to Aitchison

a MEMBER of the Borders Party is set to land the key role of executive member for education – in charge of a department with an annual budget of £94million – when Scottish Borders Council meets today.

TheSouthern understands that retired college lecturer Sandy Aitchison, who lives in Stow, is the unanimous choice for the plum job of the new SNP/Independent/Lib Dem administration which assumed control following the May 3 election.

The Borders Party, founded on an anti-rail ticket ahead of the 2007 polls, failed to increase its representation beyond two councillors – Mr Aitchison and Nicholas Watson – this time round.

But in the horsetrading after the votes were counted, the erstwhile backbench pair decided to row in with the seven Independents to form an alliance with the six Lib Dems and the ascendant SNP, which has nine councillors, to run the council, leaving the 10 Conservatives – still the biggest single party grouping – in opposition.

Last week Independent David Parker was confirmed as the £32,470-a-year leader of the new coalition and Lib Dem Graham Garvie from Peebles was appointed to the civic head role of council convener, which carries a salary of £24,353.

Also appointed were the SNP’s John Mitchell who will be deputy leader in charge of finance (also on a wage of £24,353) and vice-convener Jim Brown (SNP, Jedburgh) who will be in charge of community planning at £22,000 a year.

Today SBC will meet to decide who will fill the other £22,000-a-year roles, with special departmental responsibility, on SBC’s executive.

And TheSouthern has learned that Mr Aitchison will take over education – by far the biggest-spending department with around 1,500 full-time equivalent staff.

For a party with just two representatives to establish such a foothold (Mr Watson will be vice-chair of the planning committee) is considered just reward for their contributions as back benchers.

Mr Aitchison, who romped home in Galashiels and District, was chairman of a scrutiny working group which earlier this year published a revealing report on commuting and demographic trends as they affected the region.

Educated at Stow Primary and Galashiels Academy, he joined the Merchant Navy as a radio officer after studying at Leith Nautical College. After a period in the North Sea oil industry and when his old college became part of Jewel and Esk Valley College, Mr Aitchison spent a decade teaching ships masters about distress and safety communications equipment.

When these courses stopped, he completed his career at the college teaching basic electronics and maths to school leavers.

Although SBC would not confirm who will get what job ahead of today’s meeting, TheSouthern also understands that executive roles await Independents Michael Cook and Gordon Edgar, and Lib Dems Catriona Bhatia and Vicky Davidson.

“The Lib Dems appear to be punching above their weight given their representation, but that has a lot to do with their experience, given that so many of the new coalition are newcomers to the council,” said an SBC source yesterday.

Although the council is today expected to endorse an interim scheme of administration, which sets out broadly the same decision-making structures that have existed since 2003, radical changes to these are expected to be flagged up in a new “partnership agreement” which will be announced by Councillor Parker after the meeting.

That document will give more than a nod to the SNP’s pre-election manifesto pledge for more democratic decision-making, involving all councillors on key committees.

It will be revealed, for instance, that the full council meetings scheduled for June and September will take place not at Newtown, but at other locations in the region and that a major review, involving public consultation, will take place this summer on the best way to replace area committees. The role of the watchdog scrutiny panel, widely perceived as an ineffectual monitor of executive decisions, will also be reviewed.

“There may even be a place for the opposition on the council’s executive,” said our source.