Cash boost for area forums as council sets budget

Scottish Borders Council leader David Parker (centre) with depute leaders Catriona Bhatia and John Mitchell with their capital budget programme,
Scottish Borders Council leader David Parker (centre) with depute leaders Catriona Bhatia and John Mitchell with their capital budget programme,

Scottish Borders Council has agreed to give major new spending powers to the region’s five area forums.

These bodies, comprising local SBC elected members and community council representatives, will receive a share, based on population, of £500,000 – which will be distributed to the region’s five forums in the next financial year.

Forum spending decisions on community projects and improvements will be binding and not require further ratification by SBC.

The so-called “participatory budget” scheme was approved at today’s (Thursday) full council meeting.

It had been endorsed privately earlier this week by the ruling administration at Newtown St Boswells after it was confirmed that the local authority is to receive an extra £2.88m in revenue support from the Scottish Government in 2017/18.

Councillors agreed this morning that the bulk of that one-off windfall should be used to reduce the impact of spending cuts which were drawn up to address a previously announced £8.28m reduction in the annual grant from Holyrood.

It was thus agreed that a proposal from the administration to cut bus subsidies by £200,000 in the coming year should be scrapped.

In addition, a controversial move to cut SBC’s annual contribution to Live Borders, which runs libraries, museums, community centres and sports facilities, by over £200,000 was also ditched.

Proposed cuts of £350,000 in school libraries and outdoor education provision have been reduced by £220,000.

A further £512,000 has been added to the revenue budget for roads investment.

Councillors heard that, when capital spending was taken into account, over £13m would be spent on the region’s ailing roads network in the coming financial year.

The decision to fund area forums was another late addition to revised 2017/18 budget.

“We could have used all the extra resources to make further savings, but instead have opted for something which recognises the pressing need for our local communities to have real democratic power,” said Councillor Stuart Bell (SNP, Tweeddale East), executive member for economic development.

“It is one of my regrets that in the five years since I was elected many of our 69 community councils are in a fragile state. They feel powerless to effect real change on their patches and perceive area forums as mere talking shops.

“Participatory budgeting is a way for local people to have a direct say in how and where public funds can be used to address local needs.

“It also chimes with the objectives of the Community Empowerment [Scotland] Act to promote and facilitate the participation of members of the public in the decisions and activities of this council – including in the allocation of its resources.”

“It is the hope of the administration ahead of the May local elections that by devolving funding decisions in this way, our communities will be more engaged and energised.”

As expected, the council today (Thursday) approved increases in Council Tax after a nine-year freeze.

The new annual rates, from April 1, are as follows: Band A - £744.35; Band B - £868.40; Band C - £992.46; Band D - £1,116.52; Band E - £1,466.98; Band F - £1,814.35; Band G - £2,186.52; Band H - £2,735.47.