Plea for level playing field for funding rejected

Director Alistair Moffat at the launch of this year's Borders Book Festival, being held next month.
Director Alistair Moffat at the launch of this year's Borders Book Festival, being held next month.

A plea for a level playing field for funding for community and other events has been rejected for now.

Galashiels councillor Harry Scott has criticised Scottish Borders Council for allowing organisers of events such as Melrose’s annual rugby sevens tournament to spend grant money on employees’ wages despite forbidding community groups from doing likewise.

Under current rules, community groups aren’t eligible for council funding if the money is to be used to pay workers.

However, events such as the Borders Book Festival in Melrose are allowed to spend council cash on salaries and consultancy fees.

Mr Scott is calling for parity in funding criteria, saying: “This year, the Melrose Sevens, which attracts major sponsorship, was awarded a grant of £8,000.

“The Melrose book festival has, in the past, received a grant of £25,000.

“The last published accounts for the Melrose Book Festival for 2017 show a total income of £336,941, and two of its directors paid £25,000 each, not in their capacity as directors but ‘as part compensation for their contributions of skill and experience in the field of literary festivals’.

“The spouse of one of the directors was also paid a £5,000 consultancy fee ‘for services provided to the festival’.

“This places those undertaking purely community projects at a serious disadvantage when compared to those organising what Scottish Borders Council classes as events.

“Both bring benefit to the community in general, or a section of it, but why discriminate against unpaid volunteers who undertake projects aimed purely at securing the improvement or wellbeing of their communities?

“I am not suggesting that Scottish Borders Council ceases providing financial support to events which bring economic benefit to the community. However, the discrimination needs to end.

“The restriction prohibiting, as a condition of receiving community grant funding, the payment of wages, salaries, or fees of sessional workers should be removed so that community groups are able to access the finance to achieve satisfactory outcomes for the communities they work so hard to serve.”

Mr Scott raised that issue at last week’s full council meeting, held in Kelso, and fellow Galashiels councillor Sandy Aitchison, the ruling administration’s member for neighbourhood and locality services, told him: “The funding available for community events does have different criteria to those events defined by Scottish Borders Council’s events plan.

“The council funds these latter events, which can include paid salaries or fees, because of the significant economic impact they have on the Borders as a whole.

“On an interim basis, it was agreed that the grants available from the new community fund would be based on the current criteria for the community grant scheme, which has been in place since 2005.

“A condition of that scheme is that grants cannot pay for wages, salaries, fees or work.

“We will ensure that this is included in the scope of the consultation on the future governance of the area partnerships, which includes the allocation and disbursement of the community fund.”

Mr Scott described that situation as unfair, though, telling the chamber: “I’m disappointed in that answer, quite honestly.

“I do not see why this cannot be changed to create a level playing field, so tell me now how are these community groups to be helped to undertake tasks for which they have to hire paid assistance from outside? It’s just not fair.”

Mr Aitchison replied: “This was agreed in the paper presented in March, and if councillor Scott wants to take the matter forward as part of the consultation, then he would be perfectly at liberty to do so.

“The fact is this was agreed by the council in March and therefore we are simply following the policy which was agreed at that council meeting.”