Scottish Borders Council’s proposals for a merger with the region’s health board have been dismissed as just talk – for now, at least – by NHS chiefs.
“There is no planned merger,” NHS Borders staff have been told by their bosses.
At a meeting of Scottish Borders Council on Tuesday, councillors agreed to alert the Scottish Government’s local governance review that they are open to the idea of a potential merger with NHS Borders.
The proposals would see the combined council and health trust take charge of 9,000 staff and a budget of more than £400m of public money.
However, NHS Borders chair John Raine and chief executive Jane Davidson have written to staff members assuring them that the merger is speculative and the health board has not considered the proposals yet.
The letter reads: “We recognise and understand the anxiety some staff are feeling as a result of the current media coverage of Scottish Borders Council response to a Scottish Government and Convention of Scottish Local Authorities local governance review.
“The council’s submission suggests an approach to the future delivery of public services in Scottish Borders which would have as its ultimate long term aim the creation of a single public authority.
“The board of NHS Borders has not considered the council’s submission, and if invited to have a view will do so in consultation with Scottish Government and with our own staff.
“We wish to assure staff there is no planned merger.
“The council’s report is available to be viewed on their website and we will keep staff updated.”
However, council chief executive Tracey Logan has said that Borders residents can expect “significant change within two to three years”, saying after the crucial vote on Tuesday: “Now we formally submit the proposal to Scottish Government as a response to the local governance consultation.
“We hope this is the very first steps on a journey towards an end which we really don’t know. We’re hoping for closer working and more collaboration between partner agencies towards better outcomes.
“To do that, we need to work with those partner agencies to explore different methods and models of delivery and different governance arrangements.
“Equally essential, if not more so, is the engagement with the communities in the Borders. We have a whole plan to go out and meet with different sectors, different people and different communities to see what they think about merging services.
“Ultimately, we are talking about a long-term proposal. This isn’t something that’s going to be delivered in the next six months or 12 months.
“I think we could see some significant changes within two to three years, bringing areas of collaboration forward and working together to develop that proposal, but I do think that this is a long-term vision of the future.”
The two respective chief executives have been in contact since the vote, and in an e-mail exchange between Ms Davidson and Ms Logan, the NHS Borders chief said that they will need to “test the appetite” of the health board before moving forward.
She wrote: “I read this paper as a long-term project that considers moving away from community planning and establishing a brand new single public authority in the Borders.
“It is a bold idea and it acknowledges that there are differential governance issues, and a need to retain a national health service.
“There is certainly no firm proposal that we have been able to discuss at our joint executive management team or our board.
“I also think it is important to remain open to exploring other avenues for more joint working, possibly the integrated joint board could be enhanced for example like Dumfries and Galloway, or a new model may be beneficial e.g. lead agency – and also to take account and acknowledge existing accountabilities.
“I would also draw attention to the good work that is progressing with our regional NHS partners in a drive to ensure acute health services in the Borders is sustainable in the longer term, as well as good work beginning on improvements in primary care.
“I saw a draft of a paper going to council last week and fed back that we would have to test the board’s appetite or perspective on a full-blown proposal for a single public authority.
“I also suggested that, rather than a proposal, it should be the beginning of a conversation with our board and all the other public-sector partners in the Borders.
“The recommendations need consideration. Public-sector partners in the Borders could not begin to work up a proposal without first having considered it and made a judgement on any degree of interest or support.
“The local governance review has talked about an inclusive dialogue and the first place to start is with our board, and other public sector partners, to give a degree of careful thought and consideration to this paper.
“From there, there may well be a need to take soundings from one of our vital communities i.e. our staff, as well as the public and other bodies.”
Mr Raine has previously welcomed the plans, saying: “NHS Borders welcomes the local governance review as an opportunity to engage with partners on how to improve health and social care outcomes for the Borders’ population.
“There is certainly a big conversation to be had and, subject to discussion with the Scottish Government and the democracy matters team, it’s a starting point for dialogue with staff and local partners on possible options for the delivery of future public services in the Borders.”