Doubts expressed over sport and culture merger

Ewan Jackson from Borders Sport and Leisure Trust at their new offices in Galashiels.
Ewan Jackson from Borders Sport and Leisure Trust at their new offices in Galashiels.

Fears for the future of cultural services if taken over by Borders Sport and Leisure Trust (BSLT) were voiced last week.

Although Scottish Borders Council agreed on Thursday to open discussions with the trust about the possible transfer of its libraries, museums, public halls and community centres, several elected members expressed concerns.

“BSLT does a pretty good job of running sports facilities which generate income, but I am not sure it really wants to take this on,” said Councillor Michelle Ballantyne.

“This will only work if BSLT really wants it,” the councillor added.

Councillor Ron Smith told colleagues: “I remain to be convinced our cultural services can sit with the market-oriented environment in which the sports trust operates. Our cultural services are important and must be protected so, yes, I am sceptical.”

And Councillor Bill White stated: “My main concern is that, despite the financial support we give to BSLT, we have very little scrutiny of how it is run and I would need assurances that this council will have more scrutiny if our cultural services transfer.

“We also need a plan B if things don’t work out.”

Rob Dickson, the local authority’s corporate transformation and services director, said the alternative was to pursue the original proposal for a transfer to a separate stand-alone trust.

“This needs some work, but could be brought forward quite quickly,” added Mr Dickson.

It is seven years since the council agreed in principle to transfer its cultural services, which employ 200 full-timers and have an annual budget of nearly £5million, to a charitable trust which would benefit from estimated rates relief of £400,000 a year.

In November, the council approached BSLT about the possibility of an integrated trust and, earlier this month, the BSLT board agreed to a dialogue without committing itself either way.

Indeed, no mention of the impending arrangement was made when BSLT chief executive Ewan Jackson gave a presentation to Friday’s meeting of the Eildon Area Forum.

Despite their misgivings, councillors agreed to open discussions with BSLT, which runs 14 facilities and receives an annual management fee from the council of nearly £2.5milllion.

A final report on the viability of an integrated trust will come back to councillors in October. If an agreement is reached, it will take a further six months to implement the transfer.