Referendum set to resolve site ‘shambles’

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A REFERENDUM is set to be held in Lauder to decide if land controversially earmarked for a new £2.1million health centre should be sold to NHS Borders.

It will be conducted by, or on behalf of, Scottish Borders Council which discovered last month the site in the town’s public park was not in its ownership but was, instead, part of the Royal Burgh’s Common Good, having been bought for around £100 in 1929.

As revealed last week, it will require the council, as common good trustees, to petition the Court of Session for permission to sell the land to NHS Borders: a process which could take up to 18 months and incur legal costs of around £50,000.

Much has happened in the year leading up to the ownership bombshell, not least the sale by SBC of the old primary school site – favoured as a health centre location by the campaign group POGS which was set up to protect the public park from development – to the Eildon Housing Association for £235,000 with the help of £125,000 from Council Tax collected by SBC on second homes.

The council executive met in private in January and agreed to set aside £900,000 in its capital programme for the coming financial year to demolish a dilapidated football pavilion on the proposed health centre site and replace it on SBC-owned land nearby, while also providing a floodlit pitch and a new play area, the entire project, including the health centre, having received planning consent from SBC’s planning committee the previous month.

Explicit in the sports facilities development was the use of the £250,000 cash receipt from NHS Borders and TheSouthern understands a report to the executive highlighted the urgency of demolishing the old pavilion so the health centre could be delivered in 2011/12. And NHS Borders chief executive Calum Campbell confirmed financial support had been received to take forward the health centre scheme over 2011/12 and that “nothing can happen” until the ownership issue is resolved.

This appears at odds with last week’s assertion by SBC leader David Parker that the health authority did not intend building the medical centre until 2012/13.

This week, Mr Parker told us: “All the information I have received states quite clearly NHS Borders were not going to be building in Lauder until the start of the financial year 2012/13 ... it may mean they will commence design and procurement before that, but actual build won’t begin until some time after April, 2012.”

However, he admitted that timescale would be academic if the people of Lauder voted against using the common good site for the health centre.

“At present, the common good trustees are discussing with our legal advisers what the court process entails, how long it will take and what the cost will be,” said Mr Parker.

“We are also discussing the matter with NHS Borders to understand what they think and how it impacts on their plans.

“Once we have collected this information, we will want to sit down with Lauderdale Community Council to discuss the matter in more detail and it is very likely there will be some public meetings as part of a community engagement process before any decision is taken to go down the court route.

“Myself and the other two Lauderdale members [councillors Nicholas Watson and John Paton-Day] are very keen to consult with the public. To that end, we are investigating the possibility of carrying out a formal referendum where we would ask each adult on the electoral roll within the Lauder common good boundary if they support the idea of developing the health centre on a small section of the park.

“If the answer is ‘yes’, then it gives us more confidence with the court process. If the answer is ‘no’, then we would obviously not consider proceeding to court and the park site would not go forward. This might mean we do not secure a new health centre or there will be a signficant delay before alternative sites can be identified.

“The referendum may be conducted by SBC or an alternative suitable polling organisation and is likely to be a postal ballot. We are currently working out the logistics of this approach and whether a referendum can be financially afforded by the common good fund.”

Meanwhile, Lib Dem councillor Catriona Bhatia revealed this week she had tried unsuccessfully to call in the January decision to allocate £900,000 for the sports facilites in the forthcoming capital budget.

“The Lauder situation is a shambles, marked by hasty decisions and a lack of transparency,” she told us. “With costs spiralling, the whole prioject must be re-examined to ensure it meets the needs of the community and gives best value to the council.”

Mr Parker responded: “The £900,000 budget for the SBC elements assumes a number of things, but basically we already have in place enough money for a new sports pavilion and this will be delivered come what may.”

Meanwhile, the POGS (Protect our Greenfield Site) group will meet later today to discuss the implications of common good ownership.

Group member Allan Alexander told us any poll of Lauder residents should not be left with either SBC or the community council “as they have not acted in the interest of the community on this subject in the past”.