Council’s link with the public

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AREA committees were disbanded in three of the five Scottish Borders Council areas two years ago, but they could be set for a comeback after the council elections in May.

They were introduced when Scottish Borders Council took over from Borders Regional Council and district councils such as Berwickshire District Council to maintain a local link between residents and the new council. Berwickshire Area Committee was made up of all Scottish Borders councillors representing Berwickshire, plus community council representatives. Meetings were held in Duns and involved presentations and local planning matters that were discussed by the committee but with only the SB councillors able to vote on planning applications.

All area committee were open to the public but most were poorly attended, Berwickshire being the exception, and if there was a controversial planning application up in front of the area committee the council chamber at Duns was often packed to capacity. But it was the general lack of public interest, combined with the cost of running the once a month committee meetings that persuaded SBC to disband the committees in Berwickshire, Eildon and Tweeddale - Cheviot and Teviot & Liddesdale retained theirs.

A year ago a council working group started looking at how the council engages with the Borders community, aiming to come up with the best way of communicating with residents across the region - and the conclusion they came up with is that area committees should be reintroduced but with revamped agendas that have items of business of greater interest to the general public and community groups.

The working groups looked at community engagement committees, neighbourhood partnerships, public meetings and revised area committees, concluding that area committees (meeting quarterly rather than monthly) was the way forward. They had looked at other variations operating in Edinburgh, the Highlands, Aberdeen, and Kingston-upon Thames, as well as devolved budgets which work in Orkney and East Lothian.

But none of this will happen until the new council is installed in May and they will make the final decision on whether to introduce the modernised area committees.

In June last year the Christie Commission reported on Scottish public service reform and stressed that the council’s objectives “must be to ensure that public services are built around people and communities, their needs, aspirations, capacities and skills, and work to build up their autonomy and resilience.”

The new committees will aim to increase public awareness of the council’s services and priorities and be aware of the need for a flexible and integrated approach to service delivery.