The specific challenges faced by businesses in the Borders were examined in detail last Wednesday evening in Galashiels.
The Scottish Government’s Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, led by convener Edward Mountain, Conservative MSP from the Highlands and Islands, visited the Scottish Borders campus in Netherdale to hear from locals.
The group is holding an inquiry into a Government bill which will create a new South of Scotland Enterprise Agency, and wanted to hear the specific needs of the Borders community.
Local business leaders and community group representatives packed out the lecture hall, and the committee were left in no doubt as to the challenges faced by businesses based in the rural south.
Issues which came up time and again were: the inability to keep talented youngsters in the Borders; the difficulties in attracting young people from other parts of the country to the region; poor transport links; an ageing and depleting population; and poor digital and physical connectivity.
Youth worker Mark Timmins aired one example of how difficult it is for young people to live and work locally: “The lack of transport is a massive issue.
“If you live in Hawick and get a job in Kelso, you have no chance of getting there in time with local transport.”
Another member of the public said the new agency should be based on the model of the much-admired Highlands and Islands Enterprise Agency.
He said: “We do, after all, have islands here ... Hawick, Kelso, Jedburgh. It just so happens that they are surrounded by land, not water. It can take you longer to get from Kelso to Galashiels than it does from Oban to Tobermory.”
The new agency would be funded to the tune of £40m, and it is hoped that it will be used to allow small businesses the chance to grow.
South of Scotland list Labour MSP Colin Smyth is a member of the Scottish Government’s Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee and he has pledged to put forward a series of amendments to the bill establishing the new agency to ensure a legal requirement for it to consult the local community and to put in place a mechanism by which the new agency to be held to account by local stakeholders.
Speaking after the meeting, he said, “It was vital for the committee to come to the south of Scotland to listen to local views as ultimately the most important people in this whole process are the residents of the south of Scotland.
“This needs to be their agency, not the government’s. The agency must be rooted in the south of Scotland. That means it needs to have processes in place for the local community to hold it to account and the membership of the board needs to reflect the views of the local communities. If that does not happen then the agency won’t find the local solutions to the local economic problems we face in the south.
“There was real opposition to the Government simply being able to hand pick the board and chairperson of the new agency without local input.”