Scottish Borders Council has taken its first step towards becoming the first local authority in Scotland to merge with its local NHS board.
At a meeting of the full council on Tuesday, September 25, councillors agreed to alert the Scottish Government’s local governance review that they are open to the idea of a potential merger with NHS Borders.
The proposals would see the combined council and health trust take charge of 9,000 staff and a budget of more than £400m of public money.
In a report by Michael Cook, former depute leader of the council and now the authority’s corporate policy adviser, he described the proposals as “an unprecedented opportunity”.
Mr Cook highlighted several challenges facing the Borders including a reduction in public spending, its sparse and ageing population, persistent social inequalities, the likely impact of Brexit on the region and the devolution of powers from Westminster to Holyrood creating an imbalance with the authority’s English neighbours.
“The Scottish Government’s local governance review grants the council and partners an unprecedented opportunity to design a system for engaging with and delivering for the citizens of the Scottish Borders by driving a significant improvement in outcomes through a unified focus on priorities in a single organisation,” said Mr Cook.
Council leader Shona Haslam implored her fellow councillors to “start thinking radically” and support the submission to the Scottish Government: “Our local services are facing challenges which have never before been seen,” she said. “Rising costs and decreasing funding mean we have to think of new ways to protect our public services and make sure they are fit for the future.
“This paper asks the Scottish Government if we can take the very first baby steps towards a new solution to the delivery and organisation of our services in the Borders.”
Tweeddale West councillor Heather Anderson claimed the proposals had not been subject to scrutiny and she put forward a motion, seconded by Mid-Berwickshire councillor Donald Moffat, calling on the council to highlight to the Scottish Government that alternatives would be explored “to enable the robustness of the single public authority option to be fully tested”. However, that motion was defeated in favour of submitting the original report to the Scottish Government by a vote of 18 to 11.
Speaking after the debate, council chief executive Tracey Logan said Borders residents can expect “significant change within two to three years”, adding: “Now we formally submit the proposal to Scottish Government as a response to the local governance consultation.
“We hope this is the very first steps on a journey towards an end which we really don’t know. We’re hoping for closer working and more collaboration between partner agencies towards better outcomes.
“To do that, we need to work with those partner agencies to explore different methods and models of delivery and different governance arrangements.
“Equally essential, if not more so, is the engagement with the communities in the Borders. We have a whole plan to go out and meet with different sectors, different people and different communities to see what they think about merging services.
“Ultimately, we are talking about a long-term proposal. This isn’t something that’s going to be delivered in the next six months or 12 months. I think we could see some significant changes within two to three years, bringing areas of collaboration forward and working together to develop that proposal, but I do think that this is a long-term vision of the future.”