BOSSES at Scottish Borders Council have attempted to defend their track record despite being rated amongst the worst performing in Scotland.

Figures released by the Local Government Benchmarking Framework last week puts the Newtown St Boswells authority towards the bottom of the heap in most categories.

With housing stock transferred over to Scottish Borders Housing Association and all cultural and leisure facilities in the hands of Live Borders, the local authority's portfolio of responsibility has diminished over the past decade or so.

But much of what remains under Scottish Borders Council control is lagging behind other authorities.

As well as having the second worst roads in the country, according to the 2018/19 findings, bosses at Newtown spent less than half the national average on repairs, £4,609 per kilometre against the Scotland-wide £9,417.

Although an argument can be made regarding the additional amount of carriageway in the rural Borders, similar authorities, such as Highland, Aberdeenshire, Moray and both North and East Ayrshire, all spent considerably more.

Only Dumfries and Galloway, and Eilean Siar authorities spent less during 2018/19.

Scottish Borders Council also spent below the national average on every aspect of education.

Across Scotland the average spend per pupil in secondary education was £7,185, while in the Borders it was only £7,043.

Primary pupil spend in Scotland was £5,250, while in the Borders during 2018/19 it was £5,095.

And pre-school spend per pupil in the Borders was only £4,165 against a national average of £5,070.

The number of sick days taken by teachers in the Borders was also worse than the national average.

While spending on frontline education is well below Scottish averages, the amount spent on office-based administration and support across the whole authority during 2018/19, at seven percent of budget, was almost double the national level of four percent.

Local MSP Christine Grahame believes Scottish Borders Council should re-prioritise its spending.

She told us: "I am sure Borderers will be angry at the information coming to light from this given how clearly it demonstrates the council’s deeply skewed priorities for its spending.

“Time and time again constituents have contacted me to complain about the frankly dangerous state of some roads in the Borders and I have repeatedly raised it with SBC.

"To now find out it has the third lowest spend per kilometre on roads in the country, and that the area has the second worst A roads and B roads is an unsuprising but damning indictment of the council’s priorities.

“Why is this Tory-led administration spending £11m on vanity projects like the purchase of the Lowood Estate for speculative development, whilst it underspends on our schools, tourism and helping people back to work? Why does it spends so little on economic development to bring down the 13 percent of shops that lie empty in our town centres?

“There are serious questions for SBC to answer here and I for one will certainly look to see them held to account.”

Investment in helping people back to work was the second lowest, at 0.9 percent, of all the 32 authorities in Scotland.

Scottish Borders Council also spent less than half the national average when it came to economic development and tourism.

Across Scotland authorities averaged £102,086 per 1,000 population on attracting tourists and improving the local economy, in the Borders the spend was just £39,776.

And the figures also show that there was a higher proportion of empty town centre properties (13 percent) in the Borders than the Scottish average (10 percent).

Elderly care was also ranked poorly with only 73 percent of council services rated as good or above - the fourth worst in all Scotland - compared to a national average of 82 percent.

Ron Sutherland, who had a successful career in corporate governance, finance and management, has been a strong critic of spending at Newtown St Boswells in recent years.

The retired consultant from Innerleithen told us: "As those who have attempted in recent times to get to the heart of topical issues, transactions and dealings will already be aware, it is often difficult to ascertain what goes on at SBC, through the barrier of smoke and mirrors around the council's Newtown St Boswells nerve centre.

"It might be thought that senior officials - of which we evidently have many - and elected members prefer to inhabit those parts of Council HQ located away from the spotlight of public scrutiny and accountability!

"However, the Local Government Benchmarking Framework provides an excellent opportunity for outsiders to gain an insight into our local authority's performance in comparison with other councils across the country, and indeed against those with similar characteristics to SBC.

"Revelations of shortcomings in expenditure, or investment of council taxpayers money last year in several key local authority areas of responsibility such as roads, schools and education, tourism, economic and social development, etc. are unsurprising.

"There are few if any bright spots - especially worrying when SBC allocates almost twice the national average funding to administration support, doing little to dispel impressions of a top-heavy, inefficient organisation.

"This resonates with the recent eye-wateringly costly and confused SB Cares debacle - indicative of poor planning and organisational management allied to woefully inept financial control and monitoring by those senior people charged with doing just that, and paid handsomely into the bargain.

For the record in the year to March 31, its last full year of operation, provisional accounts for SB Cares LLP disclosed a net loss of over £2.8 million, with net current liabilities - effectively, accumulated insolvency - in excess of £7.5 million - plus an audit report casting material uncertainty and significant doubt on the organisation's viability as a going concern.

"In most peoples' book, that would read like mismanagement, which would be little short of a scandal.

"Moreover, in the four years of so of employment, the CEO of SB Cares took home more than half a million pounds for his efforts and he was also employed as an executive director of SBC, in clear contravention of relevant guidelines relating to conflict of interest.

"Will anyone be held accountable?"

In a statement from Scottish Borders Council, bosses attempted to highlight the amount of money spent with local suppliers and contractors was significantly higher than the national average.

But it didn't mention that only 84 percent of invoices were paid on time - against a national average of 93 percent, making it the fifth worst for paying bills in the country.

Rather than being disappointed SBC Chief Executive Tracey Logan prefers to look at more locally sourced surveys.

She said: “These statistics are just one element of how we regularly monitor and report the performance of the council.

"Many of these figures are not new, and in some areas we believe that some of the local data we collect, for example the Scottish Borders Household Survey and those undertaken with Live Borders customers, are more representative due to the volume of responses received.

"These show much higher levels of satisfaction with services.

“However, every piece of information on our service delivery is useful, and we will use the statistics and comparison data to look at how we can continue to change, improve and invest to provide the best possible services to the residents of the Scottish Borders.”

Scottish Borders Council did fare well in council tax collections and support offered for looked-after children.

And it has the second highest spend of any authority, at £30,300 per 1,000 population, on parks and outdoor spaces, with the national average being £20,174.

The significant spend is down to the investment in new parks and the additional cost of staff from other departments.

Council leader Shona Haslam said: "It is abundantly clear when you look at the full range of data released that council services are under pressure across the country, with average performance falling across many areas.

“In some measures this follows long periods of improvement, suggesting that we may be reaching a tipping point in how council services are being affected by the need for us all to make savings due to the gap between the funding required to maintain and improve services and that actually available.

“Scottish Borders Council continues to make and maintain progress in some key areas, but we have to be realistic and acknowledge that services, particularly non-statutory ones, are impacted by reductions in spending."