Doubts voiced over sport and culture merger

Michelle Ballantyne: "This will only work if the BSLT really wants it"
Michelle Ballantyne: "This will only work if the BSLT really wants it"

Fears for the future of cultural services if they are taken over by the body which runs most of the region’s swimming pools and sports centres have been voiced.

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

“The 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 the BSLT really wants it.”

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 the BSLT, we have very little scrutiny of how it is run and I would need assurances 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, SBC’s corporate transformation and services director, said the alternative was to pursue the original proposal for a transfer to a separate stand-alone trust. He added: “This needs some work, but could be brought forward quite quickly.”

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 £5m, to a charitable trust which would benefit from estimated rates relief of £400,000 a year.

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

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.