A political storm is rumbling at Scottish Borders Council after the nine-strong Conservative opposition group shunned the opportunity to be represented on a new beefed-up executive.
That 16-member body will from January 1 take over the role of service committees, covering education, roads, social work and economic development, which are being scrapped as part of a radical shake-up of the decision-making structure at Newtown.
The new set-up will also see the revival of a watchdog scrutiny panel of nine backbench councillors which will have the power to challenge executive decisions and, if necessary, call them in.
But when councillors gathered last week to rubber-stamp the regime, there was a shock amendment from the Tories demanding that the three places reserved for them on the executive should be removed.
Tory councillor Tom Weatherston claimed that if the opposition was party to executive decisions with which it did not agree, this would compromise the effectiveness of scrutiny.
The bid to remove the three places was predictably defeated – by 24 votes to 9 – but Conservative leader Councillor Michelle Ballantyne later insisted her party would have no truck with the executive.
“The SNP/Lib Dem/Independent administration is just playing lip service to the idea of extending democracy and we, as an opposition group, will continue to be sidelined,” said Mrs Ballantyne.
“Any Conservative on the executive will not be privy to the same information that other members have access to. Quite simply we will not be an effective opposition if we are implicated in pre-determined decisions.”
She said the decision to shun executive representation had also been informed by the fact the scrutiny panel, although chaired by a member of her group, would also be dominated 6:3 by members of the ruling administration. A decision of who should actually sit on scrutiny has been deferred until next month when it is likely the Conservatives will demand at least parity of representation.
The Tory stance was roundly condemned by council leader David Parker.
“The people of the Borders will be astonished at this abdication of responsibility from a party which has consistently claimed its views are ignored on this council,” said Councillor Parker. “Yet when given the chance to influence decisions, they have opted out – it’s quite incredible.”
Under the new set up the total number of meetings held annually will be reduced from 111 to 99 with the full council of 34 elected members continuing to meet monthly.
Mr Parker said that it was his administration’s intention to keep the three opposition places on the new executive open.
“I can only hope wiser counsel will prevail and we can get on with running this council in a politically inclusive way for the benefit of Borderers,” he added.