Thursday, 26 June 2014

Hubbub over hubs and powerhouses

For long enough now those of us living north of Watford have complained bitterly that London and the south-east of England sucks the economic life out of the rest of the United Kingdom.

But it hasn't prevented successive Westminster Governments from concentrating capital investment, job creation, and all other forms of development in and around the capital city. None of the politicians have even tried to reduce London's magnetic pull, content to leave the rest of England, Scotland and Wales to their own devices.

So it came as a bit of a shock to me this week when Chancellor Osborne declared in a speech: "The powerhouse of London dominates more and more. And that's not healthy for our economy. It's not good for our country".

Mr Osborne's solution? To create what he called a northern powerhouse by linking together a number of cities in the north of England to provide jobs, opportunities and security for local citizens.

A flawed solution surely, for another buzzing metropolis will simply drain the lifeblood from communities not close enough to benefit, and that would include Scotland.

Perhaps we should become an independent nation before the Manchester-Leeds collection of super cities with its High Speed 2 connection starts to fire on all cylinders. But wait a minute, would that not mean an even bigger Central Belt of Scotland hub than we have now with the Glasgow-Edinburgh axis swallowing up even more of the meagre resources at the Scottish Government's disposal.

Hubs and powerhouses do more harm than good, or so it seems. Here in the Borders our collection of small towns and attractive villages get along fine without a hub although we appear to be in danger of having one, like it or not.

The policy makers are trying hard to create some kind of powerhouse at Tweedbank where a new train station will mark the southern end of the Borders railway line, due for completion in 2015.

There is talk of a Central Borders Business Park linked to the railhead with the creation of between 1,000 to 2,300 jobs over the next 15 years. The majority of new house-building could also take place in close proximity.

A report on the likely impact of the railway's return says: "The potential demand for high quality premises means Tweedbank would be a natural location for development and industry.

The business park will require £5 million of investment, and it's claimed the most effective way to deliver new employment land opportunities is to redevelop parts, or all, of the existing Tweedbank industrial estate. Many of the properties in this area are now due for replacement or major renovation.

The master plan includes the acquisition of key parts of the existing industrial area from the private sector. Planning and development officials believe: "This is an opportunity to create a flagship development on an attractive, high amenity site."

Tweedbank's status as a hub could be enhanced still further by another £5 million project aimed at bringing the Great Tapestry of Scotland to a permanent home by the railway station.

The close links with Galashiels, already the retail capital of the Borders and a place which seems to receive the lion's share of local investment, could well create a mini-powerhouse in the heart of our region to the detriment of communities situated more than ten miles away.

Is there a danger that the fragile prosperity of Hawick, or Eyemouth, Jedburgh, Kelso or Peebles could be syphoned off by the hub in our midst? It is an issue worth thinking about before we rush headlong into adopting George Osborne's solution for our economic ills..

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