Minister slams the brakes on tapestry funding

Fiona Hyslop
Fiona Hyslop

The Scottish Government is withholding its £2.5million contribution to the £6million required to create a new visitor centre for the Great Tapestry of Scotland at Tweedbank, until it receives and endorses a “fully revised” business case for the project.

The news, conveyed in a letter from Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop to local MSP Christine Grahame, came on the same day Scottish Borders Council voted 21-10 to commit its share of £3.5million in its 2016/17 capital programme.

In so doing, councillors endorsed the decision they made in December, 2014 after considering a business case, commissioned by SBC from a firm of private consultants for £40,000, for the Tweedbank site.

In the latest twist in a saga which surely warrants its own panel in the giant embroidered artwork, Ms Hyslop acknowledges her government’s commitment to work with SBC to fund the cost of the “new visitor hub” by up to £2.5million through the £10million Borders Railway Blueprint Programme, which seeks to maximise economic and tourism benefit along the 30-mile route.

But she stresses that this commitment, though still in place, was subject to a “robust business case being presented”.

Ms Hyslop tells Ms Grahame that the leaders group from the Blueprint programme – led by the Scottish Government in partnership with Scottish Enterprise, Transport Scotland, VisitScotland and Edinburgh, Midlothian and Scottish Borders Councils – had presented the 2014 business case in December, 2015.

“Following initial advice in January, 2016, I expressed concerns regarding the sustainability of the proposals and their fit with the original ambition set out in the Blueprint document,” revealed Ms Hyslop.

“The leaders group was asked to relay these concerns to the [tapestry] project team and I am given to understand that a commitment has now been given to review and fully revise the proposals.

“Until such time as a fully revised business case, associated design and business plan has been submitted to the Scottish Government and sufficient time has been taken to reassess proposals, I am afraid it is not possible to confirm a timescale for a [funding] decision.

“It is also my assumption that, following revision, the business case will require approval by SBC themselves. It is in everyone’s interest that robust due diligence is undertaken to ensure the success of the project.”

Earlier this month, SBC’s executive was given no clue of the requirement for a revised business case. Instead, it heard that the site had been cleared of trees “to address wildlife issues” and that work to prepare the final tender package was “almost complete”.

Just how the preparation and assessment of a new business case – especially if it must go back to councillors for approval – will impact on the progress of the project will be discussed at a meeting which SBC leader David Parker and chief executive Tracey Logan is seeking with Ms Hyslop.

Councillor Parker is on leave this week, but Councillor Stuart Bell, executive member for economic development, said Ms Hyslop had agreed to that meeting which would take place “at the earliest opportunity”.

Councillor Michelle Ballantyne, leader of the Conservative opposition group, whose bid to have SBC’s £3.5 million investment withdrawn from the capital programme was rejected last week, told The Southern: “We have always said the business case for Tweedbank was too weak. We will now be seeking an assurance that there is a transparent process and that any new business plan is brought back to full council.”

Ms Logan said: “The council has been working closely with the Scottish Government and partners through the Blueprint leadership group to ensure the case for the visitor centre is as robust and up-to-date as possible. For any Blueprint funding to be released, an approval process has to be followed … and this may require further information to be supplied to the Scottish Government. This is not unusual and the council is very happy to work with partners to ensure due diligence is carried out.”