Struggling Borders economy misses out on £10million

NEARLY £10million in council capital spending that could have been pumped into the struggling local Borders economy, went unspent it has emerged.

The issue of slippage was raised at last Thursday’s meeting of the full Scottish Borders Council by councillors David Raw (LD, East Berwickshire) and Catriona Bhatia, (LD, Tweeddale West).

Their comments came during a debate on a report on the 2010/11 audit of the council by Audit Scotland. While Scottish Borders Council has already received a report on its annual accounts, this Audit Scotland annual report goes into such areas as governance and accountability, best value, use of resources and performance.

The report also identifies a number of risk areas for the council and how it intends to address those issues via planned management actions.

Slippage on capital projects - unspent cash on items such as property assets and the region’s engineering infrastructure - was one of the key risk areas identified by Audit Scotland when it came to the council’s capital investment programme and performance.

Last year, £9.6 million - around 25 percent of the council’s capital programme - was not delivered, the second year in a row that the council’s capital projects have suffered “significant slippage” according to their auditors.

That was money which the council had agreed, planned for and made provision to borrow that ended up unspent, largely due to the delays in the Borders railway construction project (£3.5 million), and delays in buying replacement plant and vehicles that were ordered during the previous financial year but did not arrive until the start of the new financial year.

In their report, the auditors highlighted how unsatisfactory this was.

“The council’s capital projects have suffered significant slippage in the last two years and it will need to improve its project management arrangements to ensure it can deliver its capital plans within the planned timescales,” stated the auditors.

The planned management action stemming from this situation is that there are on-going improvements in the council’s capital bidding process and consideration of use of an advance fees budget to accelerate project design.

Mrs Bhatia said slippage appeared to be an on-going issue at the council. “ Every year there seems to be a significant amount of slippage - nearly £10million last year,” she told fellow councillors.

“That is money that is not going into the Borders economy at a time when many local firms are struggling and it could’ve been a big help to them.”

Although there is a council committee that monitors the local authority’s capital plan, there is no elected member charged with driving its delivery - another point raised by Mrs Bhatia.

“We have got to drive this issue forward politically and get that funding into the local economy,” she said.

Executive Member for Finance and deputy council leader, Neil Calvert (Con, Tweeddale West), replied that there was a process in place for dealing with this issue, but it was agreed a report should be brought back to the next council meeting.

In their report, auditors said the adverse weather in the first half of 2010/11, combined with a variety of land acquisition issues, underpinned some of the slippage.

Part of the amount in question, £3.4million, that had been earmarked for spending on the Waverley Railway Construction Project, was slipped due to changes to the scheme’s utilities programme and voluntary purchase scheme projections.