Lowood's £10m spend was not required, says Tory councillor

A Conservative councillor has questioned Scottish Borders Council’s controversial £10m acquisition of Lowood Estate, saying that the local authority had “missed an opportunity” to turn the land into something special.

Councillor Tom Miers
Councillor Tom Miers

At a meeting of the full council last Thursday, Tom Miers, councillor for Leaderdale and Melrose, who was strangely removed from his role as planning portfolio holder last year, questioned “the ambition and decision-making capability of this council” as officers released their plans for the Tweedbank extension.

He said: “Most egregiously, fully a third of the estate is to be given over to a simple expansion of the commercial park across the railway. Any notion of an attractive gateway square coming into the estate from the station – mooted at the beginning – has been jettisoned.

"This bland business park was never in the original vision, which was for an integrated community. Instead, this was slipped into the plans along the way. This new industrial estate could have been achieved through the normal planning process, and doesn’t require a multi-million pound land purchase.

“In the residential zones, the design guide gives all sorts of exhortations to good design quality, and that’s good as far as it goes. But these principles are already enshrined in existing council and Scottish government placemaking and design planning documents.

“And being open to subjective interpretation, they are routinely ignored when real life applications come before officers and the planning committee. There’s nothing to suggest these vague principles will be adhered to at Lowood either.”

Mr Miers’ comments were blasted by Conservative colleague Mark Rowley, the executive member for economic regeneration and finance, who said the comments were “were unhelpful, mean-spirited and not in the best interests of Tweedbank, its residents, or the rest of the Borders”.

He added: “Our purchase of Lowood is important for the development and completion of Tweedbank as a village as it gives us the opportunity to ensure all the facilities we need are there and it doesn’t just become a residential sprawl.

"That’s why we are looking at high quality office and workspaces there so that we can bring more and better-paid jobs to the area. It is why we are looking at what health, care and community facilities we need, as well as a mixture of hospitality and tourism opportunities.

“Councillor Miers was unnecessarily dismissive and disparaging of what was an excellent report by officers who were working with local and portfolio-holding councillors to ensure something really positive for Tweedbank would come out of the report and guide.

"I think it is an exceptionally strong prospectus both to enhance and complete Tweedbank village and to give us an economic boost at an important location.

"It was telling that Councillor David Parker, who knows both Tweedbank and how the council works like no other, welcomed it without caveat as one of the best examples of officer work and officer/member collaboration he’d seen in his time when he warmly welcomed it.”

Mr Miers rebuffed: “It does no disservice to people in my ward to argue for the highest quality of development next door to them.

"My point here is that the goalposts have changed – it was Cllr Rowley himself who described this opportunity when we bought it as the chance of a new Poundbury – so it’s he who has changed his tune.

"An exemplar new settlement, by the way, is entirely consistent with enhancing the prospects of neighbouring Tweedbank. So that was the basis for my support for buying the estate, and that basis has been removed.”

Mr Miers said he had agreed to the purchase of Lowood at the time, but had envisaged a much-different plan.

He said: “Look at it like Melrose and Gattonside, two very different places, but they complement each other … that’s what I had in mind for Tweedbank.

"Those responsible for the financial stewardship of this council should assess carefully not just whether it was necessary to spend £10million of taxpayers’ money to buy Lowood to achieve these outcomes, but also conduct a careful audit of how much has been spent on consultancy fees, officer time and other costs both during and before this administration.

“As we approach the next local election, all of us need to consider how we can do better in the future.

"The process whereby this project descended from high ambition to all too ordinary outcomes could have been written for a textbook on public choice theory or even the script of an episode of Yes Minster.”