Sunday, 27 July 2014

Time to deliver for "The Borderlands"

So Westminster's Scottish Affairs Committee has embarked on yet another parliamentary journey in a bid to find the golden key which might unlock the door to investment and prosperity for an area they're now calling The Borderlands. It's probably the twentieth such initiative by various shades of government over the last 50 years, and I fear the report which will inevitably follow will soon be gathering dust.

Why can our national government not just channel some major industrial projects into the Borders, Dumfries & Galloway, Northumberland and Cumbria (yes, those four areas could be proposed as a joint enterprise and development board if the evidence to the committee proves favourable) thereby reversing the investment drought? It would save everyone's time and short circuit the need for more Borderlands initiatives.

It is many a long year since any significant new job creating ventures were lured into the area. And it is to be hoped the decision makers are not relying solely on that much-vaunted railway of ours for our future well-being.

But at least the recent claims in these columns that the Borders in particular suffers badly from the loss (in 2008) of its Local Enterprise Company and the accompanying annual budget of £10 million has been recognised by the Committee and will be given due consideration. Last year's £175,000 worth of Regional Selective Assistance (RSA) from Scottish Enterprise equated to the establishment of just 24 new jobs. This time round we didn't receive any RSA from Scotland's development agency whose priorities have always lain elsewhere.

There may be some concerns that none of the MPs who sit on the Scottish Affairs Committee in Westminster actually represent Borders constituencies. But hidden away in the Register of Interests submitted by Glasgow MP Ian Davidson, the committee chairman, there is a particularly assuring piece of information . It reads: "Half share of a house in Galashiels". That'll do nicely!

The investigation (written evidence is invited by September 1 2014) will try to establish the full impact of the flawed decision taken six years ago to dismantle the network of local enterprise companies, and examine how best the situation might be rectified (rescued more like). One idea would be to give the Borderlands its own enterprise authority along the lines of Highlands & Islands Enterprise (HIE).

South of Scotland has the highest rate of people with multiple jobs in the whole of Scotland. A significant number of people are in low paid, part-time employment and have to rely on at least two separate jobs to make ends meet. The urgent requirement now - as it has been for half a century - is to lure sufficient volumes of good quality employment in manufacturing or the public sector to keep the region's most talented youngsters interested in staying here.

In the words of the committee report: "The issues affecting those in the south of Scotland, such as the crucial connection between infrastructure and economic growth, the economic and social fragility of isolated communities, and the centrality of tourism to the regional economy, are directly comparable to many of the issues faced in the Highlands and Islands, and could be dealt with similarly."

Should that be the approved prescription for the economic development of southern Scotland then an almighty rethink on the distribution of enterprise money will be required. HIE currently has an annual budget of £75 million and a staff of 250 beavering away on the Highlands' behalf. In 2013/14 alone grants to local businesses totalled £30 million, generating £120 million of investment. There's currently no indication of how much Scottish Enterprise spends in the Borders and Dumfries & Galloway on an annual basis, but it will be a pittance when compared to their Highlands largesse.

How different the situation might have been for the Borderlands had that level of yearly investment been available from 1965 when HIE was established. The first negative fault lines in the Borders economy also started to show in the 1960s, but we had to wait another 25 years for our own enterprise company. Eighteen years after that they took it away even though the economic plight remained critical.

The delivery of a powerful agency with ADEQUATE financial backing to prime economic growth would be welcome...can the Scottish Affairs Committee deliver?

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