If someone says I can’t do it, I want to prove them wrong

Scottish Borders Council leader Shona Haslam
Scottish Borders Council leader Shona Haslam

A year after being “thrown in at the deep end” as a new councillor and leader of Scottish Borders Council, Shona Haslam has been reflecting on the past 12 months.

Last May the Conservative Party enjoyed strong support in the local council elections.

Together with independent councillors, they have now formed the ruling administration in the Borders.

And with her background in charity management and health and social care, Shona was asked to consider taking on the role of leader – despite her lack of experience.

Just three months into the job she was handed an anonymous note which said that the Conservative-led administration was in turmoil and on the verge of collapse because of party in-fighting – and that she was going to have to resign.

Shona keeps that note with her in her work folder and often takes it out to remind herself that “when someone says I can’t do something I’m determined to prove that I can!”

From day one, things have been different under her guidance.

She said: “Any baggage and any issues left over were all put to bed straight away.

“The council feels a much more consensual place and that’s perhaps because I have been working for the past year on getting people to work together to achieve things.”

Praising the previous administration, Shona said: “The council has done a great job over the last five to ten years in its spend-to-save initiatives and investing in new technologies which has resulted in savings.

“That means frontline cuts haven’t been as great in the Borders.

“And that’s a decision that we took as an administration – that we would continue to protect frontline services as much as possible in the budget process.

“We have done very well in managing redundancies with redeployment ensuring that staff, and their expertise, was retained.

“When I first started, people asked what I wanted to achieve as leader.

“I am a people person, not so much a buildings and infrastructure person, so my focus has been very much on looking at the vulnerable in society and what we, as a council, can do to help to keep them safe and healthy.

“That has been my focus over the last year and that has been reflected in the budget process; for instance looking at the issue of teenage mental health.”

Did what Shona wants to achieve as a councillor and leader marry up?

“On the doorsteps, during the election campaign, people said they wanted their bins emptied, roads fixed, children educated and antisocial behaviour addressed,” she said.

“I wanted to make sure these things were addressed for my ward. However, when you are looking at how to improve things in your ward it very much applies right across the board.

“You get a bigger picture – there are not just potholes in Peebles, but Eyemouth too, and we’re all clamouring to get them fixed.

“As leader you have to take a much broader perspective and prioritise things in the right order.

“It’s my job to listen and hear the quiet voices.

“I never thought I would know quite so much about different types of street lighting, ways of tarmacing a road or recycling – it’s quite phenomenal.

“They are all big budget items that the council has to deliver on so it’s important you understand them and know where the savings are and where investment is required.”

Like all local authorities, Scottish Border Council faces its own economic challenges.

But the region as a whole has enormous potential for inward investment courtesy of the UK Government’s Borderlands Growth Deal, plus the setting up of a new South of Scotland Enterprise Agency.

“It’s really exciting in terms of the economic future,” said Shona.

“You wait for one bus and then three come along!

“We are determined that this will be a real catalyst for change in the Borders.

“What we see now is low wages and low skilled jobs.

“We want to tackle that so people can live, work and have careers in the Borders, in well-paid jobs.

“We want to encourage businesses to see the Borders as somewhere they can locate to grow and develop.

“We want to reach out to businesses who may consider relocating.

“And we’re taking a lot of advice from the Highland and Islands who have had great success in that area.”