The forgotten region: South of Scotland regional focus

Written by Gemma Fraser on 27 May 2019 in Inside Politics

The south of Scotland has been overlooked for far too long, but could things finally be on the up for the region?

Image credit: Holyrood

It’s almost four years since Scottish Secretary David Mundell was chased out of Dumfries town centre by furious residents after he turned up to open a food bank.

Amid chants of “shame on you”, Scotland’s only Conservative MP at the time – this was 2015 – bore the brunt of the anger and frustration felt by those constituents he was elected to represent.

Mundell, who is MP for the Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale constituency, had questioned claims that there was a link between food-bank use and his party’s welfare reforms, which, perhaps not surprisingly, sparked outrage among those who had suffered financially at the hands of the UK Government cuts.

As a region, Dumfries and Galloway has had a longstanding allegiance to the Tories.

Before boundary changes for the 2005 election were introduced, its predecessor seats – Galloway and Upper Nithsdale, and Galloway – had been represented by Conservative MPs in all but two parliaments since 1931.

Sir Hector Munro, one of Scotland’s longest-serving Tory MPs, represented the then Dumfriesshire constituency for 33 years, from 1964 to 1997.

As a region whose economy relies heavily on farming – agriculture accounts for 70 per cent of the area – the Tory stronghold is no surprise.

But the band of protesters who ran their local Conservative MP out of town highlighted that away from the wealthy landowners and farmers, there was growing discontent among ordinary working-class people.

In fact, perhaps the first signs dated back to 1997, the year of the devolution referendum, when Labour’s Russell Brown put an end to Munro’s reign by taking the Dumfriesshire seat.

And that same year, in the neighbouring Galloway and Upper Nithsdale constituency, the SNP’s Alasdair Morgan took the seat from the long-serving Conservative MP, Ian Lang.

An often overlooked region, it is plagued by the problems of rurality, including lack of investment, a heavy reliance on public sector jobs, poor connectivity and an inability to hold on to its youth or attract young professionals.

Dumfries and Galloway’s own Regional Economic Strategy 2016-20 highlights a number of key issues facing the area, including a Gross Value Added (GVA) that is much lower than the Scottish average, an ageing population, a low wage economy and a high rate of youth unemployment.

The report states the region’s full-time workers receive the lowest average weekly pay in Scotland. It also says that the region is not visible enough at a national level in terms of policy, lobbying and as a place to do business.

Dumfries and Galloway is also under-promoted as a place to visit, work and live. The number of private sector jobs in the region has declined since 2008 and the public sector accounts for a large proportion of the region’s GVA and employment.

The strategy focuses on a number of opportunities that could help to reverse the bleak figures, looking at everything from the region’s inadequate transport links to tourism.

South Scotland Labour MSP Colin Smyth, who was chair of the regional economic strategy when he served on Dumfries and Galloway Council, says the whole of the south of Scotland has been neglected for too long and politicians representing the area need to “bang the drum” louder to get the type of investment seen in the north.

“The reason I stood for the Scottish Parliament in 2016 was that I was a local councillor and lots of the issues that are impacting on the south of Scotland were being ignored. I thought it was very much a forgotten region,” Smyth told Holyrood. “So, the lack of investment on infrastructure, for example, was a huge problem. Both physical infrastructure like the A75 and A77 but also the digital infrastructure.

“If you look at the economic figures for the region, Dumfries and Galloway was the lowest paid region in the whole of Scotland, in fact, the whole of the UK now. There’s chronic problems of low pay, [and] the challenge of outward migration of young people.

“The economy is the most fundamental challenge we’ve got. The cuts in the public sector are impacting on rural areas like Dumfries and Galloway and Ayrshire a lot more than they are elsewhere because of the lack of alternative opportunities. We are seeing a shed of public sector jobs. At the same time, there’s also the problem of recruiting people into some of those jobs that do exist, particularly in the health service. There’s a recurring problem with a lack of GPs, it’s a real ticking timebomb.”

Smyth said MSPs representing the south of Scotland need to work together to try to ensure the region benefits from the type of success other rural areas enjoy.

“We’ve got to take some responsibility because maybe we haven’t banged the drum loud enough for the region. I’ve always felt that Highlands and Islands always got themselves very well organised, we haven’t been as organised in terms of lobbying for the region.

“We’ve kind of sat quietly over the years and people don’t really notice us so we’ve been forgotten about. We need to promote what is good about the region, so if we have a recruitment problem, how do we sell the region?

“Tourism is growing, it’s  worth over £300 million to the economy of Dumfries and Galloway and has 7,000 to 8,000 jobs related to it, but it’s a fraction of what they have in the Highlands and islands. It’s about getting people to turn left on the M74 instead of going north all the time.

“The fundamental challenge in the whole of the south of Scotland, whether its Ayrshire, Dumfries and Galloway, across the Borders, is actually making sure that our voice is being heard. We’ve got a role to play as politicians to make sure that happens because nobody is going to go out their way to support the region if we don’t bang the drum for that region and highlight the positives and the opportunities.

“I remember being at the first meeting when I was a councillor of what they called the Borderlands Initiative, it was four or five years ago and it brought together all the councils in the north of England and Dumfries and Galloway and the Borders and asked what have we got in common. It was a bit like herding cats, to be honest, the council leader in Northumberland saying, ‘what do we have in common with Stranraer?’ and what brought that together was there were city region deals being developed all over and we thought, ‘we are going to miss out here if we don’t get our act together and work together’.”

These initial discussions have resulted in the Borderlands Inclusive Growth Deal, which earlier this year was given a funding commitment of more than £360m.

The deal will deliver wide-ranging benefits to five local authority areas north and south of the border – Dumfries and Galloway, Scottish Borders, Northumberland, Cumbria and Carlisle City.

With funding from both the UK and Scottish governments, the Borderlands deal will focus on energy projects, improving transport links, rural productivity and tourism across the region.

Scottish Infrastructure Secretary Michael Matheson said that alongside the establishment of a new enterprise agency and the work of the South of Scotland Economic Partnership, it could deliver “significant and lasting economic benefits”.

Scottish Secretary, David Mundell described the announcement in March as “fantastic news for the region”.

He continued: “This exciting deal will boost economic growth by helping existing business, encouraging new ventures and bringing a wealth of improvements to people who live and work in the area and to visitors.

“It is an ambitious approach to cross-border working between governments, local authorities and partners and I’m confident that together we can create jobs and opportunity and bring investment.”

Late last year, the councils involved submitted proposals to the UK and Scottish governments with their plans, which included four specific projects: Carlisle Station Gateway, Chapelcross Energy Park near Annan, Berwick Theatre and Conference Centre and the Mountain Bike Innovation Centre in the Borders.

In addition, one of its main goals is to look at the feasibility of extending the Borders Railway beyond Tweedbank all the way to Carlisle.

The ‘Waverley Route’ re-opened between Edinburgh and Tweedbank in 2015 after a business case was made by Edinburgh, Midlothian and Scottish Borders councils.

The Borders Railway year two evaluation, published last year, concluded that the route had achieved its investment objectives of promoting accessibility to and from the Scottish Borders and Midlothian to Edinburgh and the central belt; is preventing decline in the Borders population by securing ready access to Edinburgh’s labour market; and is creating modal shift from car use to public transport.

It also ruled that it was “largely achieving” a fourth investment objective to foster social inclusion by improving services for those without access to a car.

Another transport goal being campaigned for in the south of Scotland is one which would maximise the region’s ferry links to Ireland.

To help achieve their full potential and boost the economy of the region, campaigners and politicians are calling for significant investment in the road network, including dualling a number of key routes leading to the ferry port in Cairnryan.

Brian Whittle, the Conservative MSP for South Scotland whose regional office is based in Kilmarnock, says: “I think when you look at the region in its entirety, I’m very much trying to highlight the importance of Cairnryan. Not just to the economy of the area but to the economy of the whole of Scotland, which is why one of the main campaigns I’ve been working on is that infrastructure around that south west [area]. That’s gathered a lot of momentum over the time and MSPs from other parties have joined that.

“The recognition is that that part of the world has not had its fair share in terms of transport infrastructure. It’s absolutely crucial we get that right, it’s crucial for the area in all sorts of different ways.”

Whittle’s Conservative colleague Oliver Mundell agrees that connectivity across the region is key.

“The big economic activity mainly follows the M74 corridor and that’s one of the reasons why I believe physical connectivity is really important,” he tells Holyrood.

“I think if I could do one thing in this job, I’d like to see the A75 dualled between Dumfries and the motorway. I think that’s the biggest single step that could be taken to unlock economic potential, not just in Dumfriesshire but for Dumfries and Galloway. Preferably, the whole thing would be dualled to Stranraer, but the first step is getting a dual carriageway between Dumfries and the motorway corridor.

“I see a feasibility study as an absolute must. The government is keen to push these projects onto the back burner, which I find frustrating when we see the A9 being dualled, when we’ve seen [a] huge reconfiguration of the motorway network in central Scotland, we’ve seen the Forth crossing. There’s been a lot of infrastructure investment over the last ten years, just not in Dumfries and Galloway.”

Mundell adds: “I think we’ve lacked that regional identity and that’s one of the reasons I’m keen on the Borderlands initiative because I think it brings together our own region with Cumbria, Northumbria and there are huge opportunities to attract visitors who are already coming to the Lake District.”

Earlier this year, the region received a huge boost after plans to create a south of Scotland enterprise agency won the backing of MSPs.

Holyrood’s rural economy committee said the area faced a number of challenges, including an ageing population as well as transport and digital connectivity issues.

Furthermore, the committee identified that young people leaving the area, relatively low levels of productivity and GDP growth, transport and digital connectivity issues and higher concentration of low-paying jobs are all big challenges in the south of Scotland.

Committee convener Edward Mountain said there was “no doubt” a local enterprise agency was needed for the region.

And earlier this month, funding for skills and economic development across the south of Scotland was announced by Rural Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing.

Through the South of Scotland Economic Partnership (SOSEP), the former Johnston school building in Kirkcudbright, which is currently lying empty, will be transformed into a Dark Skies Visitor Centre and Planetarium.

The building will also include a child care facility, a youth activity centre and commercial premises for local business start-ups as a result of £300,000 investment from the South of Scotland Economic Partnership.

A further £60,000 will see key buildings in Hawick restored as part of a wider plan to reinvigorate the area and encourage more visitors to the town.

Ewing said: “These investments will boost tourism, create jobs, support existing businesses and act as catalysts for wider regional regeneration.

“The funding is part of a wider package of measures being supported by the Scottish Government through the South of Scotland Economic Partnership (SOSEP), which aims to improve access to skills and training, support entrepreneurship and town centre regeneration and develop tourism opportunities across the south of Scotland.

“The work of SOSEP, the establishment of a new enterprise body for the region and the £85 million we are investing in the Borderlands Inclusive Growth Deal underline our commitment to continuing to deliver for the south of Scotland and its people.”

With the money now following the desire to transform the region, it feels like the tide is finally about to turn.

But it doesn’t mean politicians can stop “banging the drum”. Now is the time to be hitting it even harder than before.

As Colin Smyth puts it: “The frustration will be if we have this conversation in ten years’ time, we won’t have done what we need to do and really get the potential of the south of Scotland fulfilled.”

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