Monday, 29 February 2016

A year on...Borders still the forgotten land


It may be fully twelve months since the Scottish Affairs Committee (SAC) at Westminster published a powerful and sweeping report which set out the critical issues facing the economy of the South of Scotland, but the UK Government has still not bothered to produce a formal response which would allow the document's findings and recommendations to be taken forward.

In the interim, the loss of manufacturing jobs and long established businesses from the Scottish Borders and Dumfries & Galloway has continued with no sign of major inward investment to staunch the haemorrhaging of the region's economic lifeblood.

Apparently the Conservative Government are more interested in squabbling amongst themselves over Europe, or promoting the ludicrously named Northern Powerhouse than paying attention to the needs of a vast swathe of rural territory part of which is represented in Parliament by no less a personage than David Mundell, the Secretary of State for Scotland.

It is understood that members of the SAC appointed after the May 2015 General Election have requested or even demanded that Cameron & Co put a stop to the incessant war with Boris and the rest of the Brexit mob within their own ranks and take time to come up with a written response to the conclusions reached in Our Borderlands Our Future, a report which was welcomed and praised across the political spectrum when it was published last March.

An excellent analysis of the South of Scotland's economic plight has been compiled by Brian Wilson, the former Scotland Office Minister, whose duties meant he was a regular visitor to the Borders as the local textile industry started to experience meltdown. Mr.Wilson's expose can be found on the website.

It is the kind of feature [or think piece as it's known in the journalistic trade] which readers are unlikely to find in the local weeklies nowadays as Johnston Press continues to take their axe to editorial staffing levels, and highly competent and experienced reporters and writers queue up for severance packages, desperate to end decades of service with papers they once loved and were proud to be associated with.

Mr.Wilson starts from the premise that the Borders and the South West often feel like the forgotten land in Scotland's national story - "no causes or characters to capture political attention". It would be hard to argue with that sentiment.

As he points out, the decline in Borders textiles is stark; in 1981 the industry employed 8,000 people which represented more than 50 per cent of manufacturing jobs in the region. Now the figure stands at 1,500 and is still falling.

"With every closure comes the cry that something must be done but nobody has yet found the magical solution, possibly because none exists", writes Mr. Wilson.

But he goes on to argue that with the right owners, astute marketing and a top quality product there is still a healthy living to be made out of textiles in the Scottish Borders. The emphasis has to be on the retention of skills which are disappearing fast while helping to marry design and marketing expertise to the needs of the remaining businesses.

It is difficult to see how Brian Wilson's proposed measures to assist the South of Scotland's economic well-being can be delivered while politicians continue to sit on their hands and the resources available remain grossly inadequate.

The committee report which now gathers dust on a Westminster shelf was not alone in advocating a development agency for the Borderlands akin to the robust and extremely well financed Highlands & Islands Enterprise to turn around the flagging fortunes of the old Border counties and their neighbours to the west.

It is abundantly clear that the decision to abolish Local Enterprise Companies (LECs) in 2008 robbed areas like the Borders of their ability to tackle local economic issues. Most of the people who served on the board of Scottish Enterprise Borders certainly knew what they were talking about, and they had the budget and staff at their disposal to make a difference.

Brian Wilson sums the current situation up like this: "Public money alone will not save what is left of the textiles industry or transform the Borders economy.

"Few could disagree however that public agencies should be working closely with those firms which have adapted, invested and are clearly capable of more than just survival. It is not a one-day publicity stunt in the wake of yet another closure that is needed but a sustained, tailored approach to supporting the specific requirements of good businesses".

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