Council bids to steer region through recession

SCOTTISH Borders Council is to spend an extra £65,000 in a bid to steer the region through the recession.

The cash will fund a new project of inward investment, promoting the Borders as a competitive area in which to relocate or develop new businesses.

"We will be producing new promotional material including a DVD and will develop a new, more business-oriented web presence," announced Councillor Vicky Davidson, SBC's executive member for economic development.

"Underpinning all this, we will carry out research and feasibility work to identify all opportunities in particular sectors and actively pursue them."

On Thursday, SBC unanimously adopted an Economic Resilience Plan, designed to help the region survive the ravages of the slump.

"This will be a challenging time for businesses, but it is also a time of opportunity, where businesses with the right ideas and resources can position themselves to come out of the downturn stronger and more competitive," said Bryan McGrath (head of economic development and regeneration) in a report to councillors last week.

"These changes will inevitably make life harder for some families and individuals in the Scottish Borders. Household debt levels across the UK are much higher now than in the last economic downturn, and as unemployement rises it is likely that some people will find themselves in increasingly difficult financial situations.

"The council and its partners have an important role to play in supporting these households to face the challenges ahead.

"It is important to recognise that it is not just businesses and households that will be adversely affected by the economic downturn. The council has already had to face a number of challenges that have arisen as a direct consequence, the most obvious being the financial impact of increased fuel and energy costs on the delivery of some core services."

Apart from the new inward investment cash, which will come from the budget currently being worked on for 2009/10, the programme will be achieved by juggling existing staffing resources.

All 5,000 council employees will be asked, through internal communication, to shop local all year round while similar public promotions will be stepped up. Ms Davidson said she expected Christmas spend in the Borders this year will be 30million and that retail pattern had to become the norm.

SBC will work with Heriot-Watt University and Borders College to ensure retraining opportunities for jobless Borderers are available and accessible.

The unemployment rate in the Borders remains low compared to the Scottish average, but figures for the last two months show a significant percentage increase over the same period last year. Across the Borders there are 280 more people unemployed than there were at the same time last year.

The council will pay its bills to local suppliers within a shorter timescale and help them build their capacity to bid for council contracts, keeping more business in the Borders.

All commercial planning applications will be processed within eight weeks and SBC's welfare benefits and social work departments will combine to ensure maximum take-up of benefits for individuals and families.

And the local Credit Union will be promoted and encouraged to reach vulnerable households so they do not have to resort to "unofficial lending channels".

Ms Davidson told councillors: "Throughout Border history our towns have always shown a touchness of spirit, a stoic resilience and, above all, a willingness to pull together in times of adversity.

"This council is only too aware of the economic situation unfolding and, whatever our political persuasions, it's time to remember we are all Borderers together.

"The people have put their faith and tax money in our hands and we must make sure we do everything in our power to not let that trust down."

Meanwhile the showcase business centre at Ettrick Riverside in Selkirk and Tweed Horizons will not be sacrificed as Scottish Enterprise prepares to sell off assets in the Borders.

The use of both facilities will be "maximised" in a new strategy announced by the national economic development quango.

In April this year, a reorganisation saw the demise of its network of local enterprise companies, including Scottish Enterprise Borders with some of its functions, including the Business Gateway small firm start-up scheme, transferred to SBC.

"The economic downturn will heighten economic inequalities, such as fuel poverty, "said Mr McGrath. "The council and its New Ways partners will have to work with individuals, businesses and the voluntary sector to ensure that social and economic inequlities continue to be addressed.

The report to councillors also made it clear that the action agreed by the council was likely to only be the start and the council may well need to consider further actions which will come to future meetings of the council.