The Borders is losing its identity

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In 1969, there was outrage throughout the Scottish Borders when the Wheatley Report on Scottish Local Government Reform proposed seven regional authorities, including south-east Scotland. This vast new administrative unit was to include Edinburgh, East Lothian, Midlothian and Fife as well as the four Border counties.

As local politicians and angry campaigners in this area claimed the Borders had absolutely nothing in common with the rest of the south-east there were dire warnings the four counties would be dominated by Edinburgh and the Lothians, and would be starved of investment. At the same time Edinburgh’s civic leader – the late Councillor Brian Meek – welcomed Wheatley’s plan because it would allow the city to “rule the roost”.

The fiercely independent Borderers eventually won the day and in 1971 the Borders and Fife were granted their own regional status. The rest, as they say, is history – or is it?

Within four years our police force and fire service were amalgamated with their counterparts in Lothian despite another furore. It proved to be a very expensive merger for the Borders.

In 1974 the total bill for the Berwick, Roxburgh & Selkirk constabulary came to £395,000. The following year Borders Regional Council had to stump up £787,940 as its contribution towards the cost of the new joint force – a 99.5 per cent increase. Outrageous. Since then the importance of preserving the Scottish Borders identity and our region’s unique brand has been emphasised ad nauseum.

Yet a few years ago we lost our Scottish Borders Tourist Board amid claims the area would be largely ignored by VisitScotland. And Scottish Enterprise Borders, an organisation with its own budget and a deep knowledge of the distinct needs of the local economy, was swept away with the rest of Scotland’s local enterprise network.

But the erosion of local control has not stopped there. We are surrounded by partnerships and joint strategies which appear to have been developed without public consultation. Whose brainchild are they, and do they deliver?

How many Borderers are aware that we are now part of hub South-east Scotland Territory? It is an amalgam of Edinburgh, West Lothian, East Lothian, Midlothian and Scottish Borders, with a title reminiscent of an Australian state. So here we are cosying up to the very same areas we had nothing in common with 40 years ago. And, of course, hub headquarters just happens to be in Edinburgh.

It has been formed to provide “collaborative approaches to infrastructure investment”, complete with its very own public/private partnership. The hub comprises five local authorities, two NHS boards, the joint police and fire boards and the Scottish Ambulance Trust.

It does not come cheap. The Scottish Government provided start-up costs of £1.4million (revenue) plus a £6.5million capital enabling fund as the South-east’s share of £30million to support hub projects nationally.

The participating authorities will be expected to take shares in a company called hubco, with a 30 per cent public sector participant shareholding.

“This should be considered as an investment and not a cost”, says a hub report. That’s all right then.

Among the so-called “aspirational” projects on a Scottish Borders shopping list totalling £119.5million is a £30million Borders joint HQ for the co-location of functions for Scottish Borders Council, NHS Borders, and other agencies. Just what we need.

So much for hub south-east territory. There are at least two more south-east of Scotland multi-agency organisations at work, both of these also based in Edinburgh and with Borders membership.

SESplan, the strategic development planning authority for Edinburgh and South-east Scotland, has been up and running since 2008, and recently completed the first phase of its master plan for the city, East Lothian, Midlothian, West Lothian, Fife and the Borders, covering virtually the same joint territory as the original Wheatley proposal. Each local authority contributes £40,000 towards SESplan’s annual running costs.

Meanwhile, we also have SEStran, the South-east of Scotland Transport Partnership which takes in eight local authorities, 3,180 square miles, and 28 per cent of Scotland’s population. The membership is slightly different with Falkirk and Clackmannan councils teaming up with Edinburgh, East Lothian, Fife, Midlothian, West Lothian and Scottish Borders. There is a staff of nine based in Edinburgh.

In 2009/10 SEStran had a core budget for staff, etc, of £665,000 with the councils contributing £315,000 of that. The proposed budget is set to rise to £1.4million in 2012/13.

So how long will it be before we have a SESed for education or a SESsoc for social work? There is already co-operation between local authorities in south-east Scotland with a view to delivering joint services such as road maintenance.

Surely, having travelled this far down the road towards a super region, it would be less costly and more efficient to go the whole hog and adopt the original Wheatley proposals sometime soon.

But would the Borders find itself out on a limb on the periphery of this super state? Would we suffer as Edinburgh ruled the roost? Or will independently- minded Borderers save the day by demanding that their area had nothing in common with the rest of south-east Scotland?