SCOTTISH Borders Council has passed its budget for 2021/22.
Councillors backed the plans during a meeting held online today (Friday, March 19).
Council leader Shona Haslam, of the Conservatives, said there was “a real sense of optimism for the future of our region”.
The member for Tweeddale East told the meeting: “I am extremely proud of what we have presented to you today.
“It provides for our communities, for our residents, schools, businesses, our towns and our villages.
“Coming just a day after the Borderlands Deal, I feel that there is a real sense of optimism about the future of our region.
“The next year is going to be all about recovery. Getting back on track after the past year of lockdown and uncertainties.
“This budget gives us the means to do that with over half a million available to groups who have ideas on how to inject life back into their communities.
“This is, of course, in addition to the Communities Fund, meaning over £1 million is going directly to our communities for their priorities in their areas.”
Five amendments were submitted by opposition councillors during the meeting.
Four of them were rejected and one was dropped.
The first was submitted by SNP councillor Heather Anderson and seconded by Elaine Thornton-Nicol.
It proposed that the council should use £90,000 to create three new ‘financial inclusion officer’ posts.
Ms Anderson claimed the roles would help “combat poverty and maximise benefit uptake”.
But it was defeated by 22 votes to 11 with Leaderdale and Melrose councillor Tom Miers abstaining.
The second amendment was put forward by Lib Dem councillor Kris Chapman, who suggested spending a “one off” £15,000 to support Citizens Advice Bureaux in the region.
Seconder Andy Anderson said it was he supported the motion because “a tsunami will be hitting the most in need in the Borders this year” following the coronavirus pandemic.
But the amendment also fell by 21 votes to 12, with Mr Miers again abstaining.
The third amendment of the day was submitted by Lib Dem Euan Robson.
He suggested spending £25,000 on foster and kinship care.
But it was withdrawn after executive member for economic regeneration and finance Mark Rowley said he would ask officers to compile a report on the topic.
The fourth amendment was submitted by East Berwickshire councillor Helen Laing (SNP).
She proposed spending £40,000 to create a new ‘biodiversity officer’ role to “support and advise communities” on improving biodiversity and green spaces.
That also lost by 22 votes to 11, with Mr Miers abstaining.
The final one was again put forward by Mr Robson and backed by Jedburgh councillor Jim Brown (SNP).
He wanted to set aside £80,000 to reopen public toilets and “facilitate their transfer” to community groups who wished to take them on.
His bid was defeated by 23 votes to 11.
Following the meeting, Conservative councillor Mr Miers told us why he abstained from three of the four votes.
He said: “We spent most of the day discussing a small fund – less than half a percent of the whole budget – designed to help our communities recover from COVID.
“But this fund is to be financed in large part by increased charges and fees levied on the very Borders people and businesses it is supposed to help.
“Robbing Peter to pay Paul doesn’t make sense. If you want to help the economy, best not to take people’s money in the first place. We should be cutting these charges, not increasing them.
“The SNP’s amendments would have made things even worse. They wanted to use about half the money to hire staff to administer the rest.
“I couldn’t support either of these proposals. It was a bit like trying to decide what colour ashtray to put on your motorbike.”
During the meeting SNP councillor Stuart Bell explained why the opposition submitted amendments, rather than an alternative budget as in previous years.
He said: “Year after year we have battered our head on the brick wall of block voting against our budget proposals.
“We focussed on fairness in all of our budgets. Twice we championed more funding for mental health and we were defeated.
“Three times we asked for more funding for CAB and were defeated.
“Twice we asked for more bus subsidies. Defeated.
“Twice we tried to protect school librarians. Defeated.
“Twice we tried to protect public toilets, and guess what?
“Last year we championed community food growing and asked for specific funding for a climate change champion and although that was again defeated, it is nice to see these two now in the administration’s budget this year.
“There are things in this administration’s budget that we are supportive of. In addition to the two just mentioned, we support the allocation of more permanent funding from revenue into roads maintenance.
“This year we decided to give councillors specific choices in specific amendments.
“Five amendments, that would only require moving money around to finance them.
“It is not clear to us what half a million for ‘bring back better for the Borders’ will actually deliver on the ground in improvements and fairness for families and citizens.”
On the amendments, Mr Rowley said: “No reports have come forward, we have no officers in the room to take advice from and while some of these issues may be very, very deserving issues, over which we have great concern, this is not the way to do it.
“I will find out this afternoon whether my guess that actually these are press releases in waiting is the case. I hope not, but I suspect they will be.
“What these amendments do, is rip money out of the hands of our communities.
“This budget gets money into the hands of our communities so they can do some of the things talked about in the amendments.
“They can do all sorts of things if we give them them the capital and help to do it.”