Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Crumbs! That's about all South of Scotland gets

DOUG COLLIE on the yawning north-south chasm in rural economic aid

This week it was announced that the Scottish Government had allocated £4 million to the Scottish Borders LEADER initiative for the period up to 2020 to fund development in rural areas.

In the previous programme, which ran from 2007 to 2013, the Scottish Borders LEADER fund was worth £3.5m, and 71 projects were supported across the area. So that all tallies up to £7.5 million worth of support over thirteen years for the vitally important work LEADER carries out to maintain and nurture the region's fragile economy. It works out at £577,000 per year on average.

Meanwhile, at the other end of Scotland Highlands & Islands Enterprise (HIE) successfully bid for additional funding of £4.6 million from the Scottish Government in 2013/14, increasing grant aid for that SINGLE financial year to £57.9 million or 100 times greater than the Borders average figure. On that basis the north will have had more than £750 million in state hand-outs over thirteen years.

Although a comparison between the two regions on this basis may not be completely fair, and Government support for Dumfries & Galloway should be included in the equation, there remains a grossly inequitable and unacceptable difference between the budget Highlands has at its disposal in its efforts to deliver economic stability and prosperity for its residents and the crumbs dished out to the southernmost areas.

The issue was examined in the course of a recent investigation - Our Borderlands Our Future - by members of the House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee when witnesses drew attention to the lack of financial backing for industrial development in the wake of the demise of local enterprise companies.

But there appears to be a real danger that the Committee's report will be left to gather dust, and the chances of establishing an adequately resourced South of Scotland development agency remain a remote possibility. Perhaps it is time for our local politicians and councillors to conduct some aggressive lobbying in the corridors of power, and for the Borders press to start asking some awkward questions.

On all available information, data and statistics Borders and Dumfries & Galloway should be in special measures when it comes to economic support. The area's GDP figure of £13,524 is a mere 67% of Scotland's average (£20,013) while a productivity level of £30,889 lags well behind the Scottish median of £43,095.

The south has no airport, has never benefited directly from oil and gas revenues, and has one of the lowest wage structures in the UK. There have been few really major inward investment projects in recent decades.

HIE has a staff of more than 250, an annual wages and salaries bill of £14.9 million, and Scottish Ministers even sanctioned a £2.7 million budget overspend in 2013/14. Expenditure on operating activities within HIE increased by 12.8% to £68.6 million.

The agency's achievements included the creation and retention of 882 jobs during that financial year alone. Grant-in-aid of £28 million to businesses secured investments totalling £113 million which were expected to support 2,128 jobs across the Highlands and Islands.

An examination of Scottish Enterprise's (SE) activities in Dumfries & Galloway and the Scottish Borders in the same year tell a vastly different story. From a Scottish budget of £52.76 million for regional selective assistance (RSA) - a total of 116 payments were made nationally - the south-west of Scotland received one RSA contribution of £110,000 to assist with the creation of 12 jobs. The Borders got nothing at all.

The number of SE 'products' delivered to other companies in southern Scotland (93 in D&G and 147 in the Borders) represented a tiny fraction of a Scottish total of 5,711. Scottish Enterprise assisted 2,708 businesses in total, 119 of them in the so-called Borderlands.

SE reported 84 inward investment successes, one of them in the Borders and one in Dumfries & Galloway. The agency's projects resulted in the creation of 4,834 new jobs - 18 in the south-west and 140 in Borders region. Ninety-four of those jobs were classified as 'high value' out of 2,515 across Scotland.

Meanwhile in the course of 2013/14 the Scottish Investment Bank (SIB) made 158 allocations worth £32.5 million. None of that money found its way into Dumfries & Galloway while one investment worth £200,000 came to the Borders.

It is high time elected representatives from this neck of the woods  started rattling a few cages and ended years of neglect from enterprise authorities which has damaged prospects of meaningful economic prosperity. We are undoubtedly Scotland's poor relations in this particular arena.

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