DESPITE returning just six councillors at this month’s local government polls, the Lib Dems have taken four of the 11 portfolios on Scottish Borders Council’s ruling executive.
At last week’s full council meeting all nominations from the new SNP/Independent/Lib Dem administration for the 11 top jobs, which each carry special departmental responsibility salaries of £22,000, were unanimously approved, without challenge from the 10-strong Tory opposition.
Having seen their representation cut from 10 to six councillors, the Lib Dems may have expected to play a less prominent role in the new coalition.
But experience appears to have stood them in good stead and four of their number were appointed to the new executive – Vicky Davidson, Selkirkshire (culture, sport and community learning), Catriona Bhatia, Tweeddale West (health, which includes a seat on the board of NHS Borders), Ron Smith, Hawick and Hermitage (planning and environment) and Frances Renton, Mid Berwickshire (social work). In addition, the Lib Dems’ Graham Garvie from Tweeddale East, has already assumed the civic figurehead role of SBC convener. The sixth Lib Dem, Alec Nicol of Kelso and District, will chair the standards committee.
The SNP, which saw its representation surge from six to nine on May 3, will have control of community planning (Jim Brown, Jedburgh and District), economic development (Stuart Bell, Tweeddale East) and community safety (Donald Moffat, Mid Berwickshire). Group leader John Mitchell (Galashiels and District) has already been handed responsibility for finance in his role as depute leader of the council on a salary of £24,353.
Now aligned with the Independents, the Borders Party has acquired, in the shape of Sandy Aitchison (Galashiels and District), a major portfolio and, as predicted in these columns last week, the retired college lecturer has taken over responsibility for education.
Three Independents will be on SBC’s executive. Michael Cook (Mid Berwickshire) has been given human resources and corporate improvement, while Gordon Edgar (Selkirkshire) and David Paterson (Hawick and Hermitage) will be the new executive members for roads/infrastructure and environmental services respectively.
Mr Edgar has emerged from five years in the local government wilderness. Having been returned at a by-election in 2002 and having served as portfolio holder for the former department of technical services, which included roads and transport, he failed to be re-elected in 2007.
After his appointment last week, Mr Edgar pledged to do all in his power to upgrade the region’s ailing roads system, claiming that, without improvements, the drive to boost Borders tourism and economic development would hit the buffers.
“It will be a major challenge, but one I am more than ready to take on,” he told TheSouthern. “Since I was last a councillor I think it’s fair to say our roads system has deteriorated and my first task will be to ensure the network is safe and fit for purpose.
“We need good roads across the region if towns like Selkirk, which increasingly depend on tourism, are to recover and flourish, so I will be advocating strongly to get the resources we need to achieve this.”
In his youth, Mr Paterson was a Scottish amateur flyweight boxing champion. First elected to Roxburgh District Council in 1988, he retained his seat in Hawick for a fifth time with a landslide majority and has now battled his way back onto the executive with the same portfolio he held from 2003-2007.
“Environmental services face huge challenges, especially in meeting the Scottish Government’s zero waste targets, but the service offered to my constituents remains my number one priority,” said Mr Paterson.
In the last administration Councillor Davidson was in charge of economic development, a role which will now be taken by Mr Bell.
“This is quite a big step up for me and it is very exciting,” said Ms Davidson of a culture, sport and community learning portfolio which includes libraries, museums, sports development, the arts and adult learning.
She added: “A huge amount of work requires to be done to maintain services which are so important for the cultural enrichment of Borderers at a time when we all know money is tight and some of these functions are misguidedly seen as non-essential.”
Ms Davidson will be closely involved in new management arrangements for museums and the arts, and the extended role of the Borders Sport and Leisure Trust.
Meanwhile, Mrs Bhatia, the daughter of Liberal grandee Lord Steel and, like Ms Davidson, an alumna of Kirkhope Primary in Ettrickbridge, has been appointed SBC’s executive member for health services. She told us: “The Scottish Government is proposing changes to the way health and social care are delivered and there will much work to do to ensure these services a re flexible enough to meet the needs of Borderers, particularly those in later life, and that NHS Borders and SBC work very closely together.
“I have a reputation for standing up for investment in vital services and would hope to be able to represent the people of the Borders within the health board in the same way I have done on the council.”