November 19, 2014
Borders Council bad at common good
One of the other issues which the Community Empowerment Bill aims to deal with, albeit with a pretty light touch, is the Common Good. Many felt that the Bill’s reluctance to frame a definition of what Common Good actually means will undermine its ambition to bring greater transparency to the way that local authorities keep records and to restrict how a common good asset can be disposed of. A retired GP from Selkirk has reviewed the performance of Scottish Borders Council in its management of the region’s £10m Common Good fund and has found it to be worryingly off the pace.
BACK in 1996, Ettrick Park, the home of Selkirk FC, was sold to Scottish Borders Enterprise for £17,500. The deal was struck by outgoing Borders Regional Council and ratified by the incoming Scottish Borders Council.
Although the football pitch, on what is now Riverside Industrial Estate, was part of Selkirk’s Common Good, that fund received no financial benefit from the sale. Instead the cash went straight to the club, helping it relocate elsewhere in the town.
It was a land disposal which did not go down well with local GP Dr Lindsay Neil, at that time a member of Selkirk’s community council. Dr Neil recalled this week: “The decision to sell Ettrick Park may have been the correct one, but it was taken without consultation with its beneficial owners – the people of Selkirk – and that was just plain wrong. The fact that just a few years ago part of the site was sold for £60,000 by Scottish Enterprise which assumed ownership on the demise of the local enterprise company network, shows, in my view, that Selkirk’s common good was not best served.”
Since then, Dr Neil, now retired and a member of the Selkirk Regeneration Company, has been convinced that the way common good funds in Scotland are controlled is undemocratic and should be reformed to bring decision-making closer to the people.And last week, he was at Holyrood encouraging MSPs to ensure that new legislation will redress what he considers an imbalance – and effectively wrest power from local authorities like Scottish Borders Council.
Since SBC’s inception, disbursement and investment decisions relating to the funds of Selkirk, Galashiels, Jedburgh, Lauder, Hawick, Kelso, Peebles and Duns – with combined net assets of nearly £10million – has rested with local working groups, comprising only SBC ward councillors.
Last year, it was agreed that one community representative – in Selkirk’s case community councillor Tom Combe – should sit on these groups which meet in Newtown. Although these meetings are open, members of the public who attend are not allowed to participate. Dr Neil believes that there should be at least as many community representatives on these bodies as councillors and that they should have the power to veto decisions if they feel they are not in the best interests of their communities.
Last Wednesday he was called to give evidence to the cross party Local Government and Regeneration Committee which is refining the content of the Scottish Government’s new Community Empowerment Bill.
If enacted, that groundbreaking bill will allow certain bodies to buy abandoned or neglected land, to allow councils to vary non-domestic rates and, crucially as far as Dr Neil is concerned, “to make provision for registers of common good property and about disposal and use of such property”.
“The section of the bill dealing with common good funds will play a major part in restoring their local status and community relevance,” he told MSPs.
“I hope it will address the legal shortcomings and sloppiness of previous legislation and marked improve hitherto unsatisfactory outcomes in the administration of these funds by local authorities.”
Dr Neil said he wanted the bill to clarify that councils do not “own” the common good funds they administer.
“Local authorities may own the title to common good funds, but it’s the burgh inhabitants who are the beneficial owners,” he stated.
Dr Neil called on the MSPs to ensure the new law exerted “much tighter scrutiny” on how councils spend common good money. He said SBC had charged Selkirk’s common good around £20,000 in the two years from 2011-13 simply to administer the fund.
He cited “several examples of profligacy” since the Ettrick Park sale, notably when last year the fund was charged £718 to set up a £50 a year lease for the Selkirk Angling Association to fish on the “town” section of the Ettrick Water.
“Such incompetence is intolerable and local common good beneficiaries have had no say in the matter and no powers to prevent such occurrences of common good fund raiding,” said Dr Neil. “For this reason a clause or amendment [in the bill] subjecting such charges, before they are debited, to independent assessment would stop this nefarious practice.”