Stumbling block for builders

I read with interest and scepticism in last week’s Southern some of the rhetoric coming from councillors seeking re-election, appealing to the Borders electorate to give them a further four years of a secure, well-paid, part-time job with pensions and fringe benefits.

All were keen to state how well they have performed during the last five years, but none of them offered any solutions to the many problems currently facing the Borders.

The following will be wasted on them, but, hopefully, some of the successful hopefuls will benefit, as I highlight one of the ineptitudes of the current councillors serving us, namely their inability to look for and find solutions to the economic problems facing the Borders, particularly the building trade.

Why have none of the councillors seeking re-election done anything about the outdated planning policies of Scottish Borders Council in the last five years?

In 2008 there was the biggest financial crisis to hit the planet since the Second World War. The Westminster government has since relaxed the planning guidelines in England and last week there was a slip into a double-dip recession in the UK, due mainly to a fall in building output. Unprecedented circumstances call for unprecedented actions. But not here in the Borders – it’s just business as usual.

All this has apparently escaped the councillors at Newtown St Boswells.

No thoughts of need even for a slight variation in policy to help kick-start the beleaguered building industry in the Borders. Councillors, not wanting to upset their cosy relations with officers, only want to get through the week with as little fuss as possible and take the wages.

While I do not advocate current policy being thrown out of the window entirely, it may be time to consider a relaxation in these policies and look favourably upon “marginal applications” at least until such times as the building trade recovers.

If the local authority refuses one application per week, that equates to 52 houses per year at say £200,000 each – a total of £10.5million per year is lost in revenues to the local building trades. Fifty-two houses spread over the Borders would not even be noticed. If it were two refusals per week, then it doubles to more than £20 million per year, ad infinitum. Fifty-two houses of developers’ contribution to infrastructure is another £208,000 in lost income to the council coffers.

There is also the outdated industrial development land policy. I cannot see a queue of industries fighting for sites and yet the council continues to refuse applications for retail on the grounds these are industrial development-designated sites, again ignoring construction jobs and thereafter employment within these retail stores.

There is also the outdated protected shop frontage policy. Empty shops are clearly visible in all Borders high streets and yet the council does not allow “non-retail”, which would provide commercial rates income, create more jobs and lessen the signs of degradation in the town centres. How short-sighted are this lot?

Retiring councillor Jock Houston, planning chair, recently stated in the Hawick News that you do not have to force the officers to do things [change policy] – a majority of councillors themselves only have to ask for change and it will happen.

So he freely admits that the council’s reluctance to even look at changing policy is all the fault of our elected councillors and no one else? I am delighted to hear Jock Houston admitting that it is he and his fellow councillors who are wholly to blame for this ineptitude and not SBC planning officers.

Councillors like Jock Houston who have had a secure public sector job all their lives would surely know little of the current joblessness and hardship within the building trade.

Norman Pender