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Associate feature: Building capacity in the south of Scotland

River Teviot in Hawick - Image credit: Daniel via Flickr

Associate feature: Building capacity in the south of Scotland

When South of Scotland Enterprise (SOSE) launched on 1 April, it’s fair to say that the circumstances were not what they had planned, and certainly could not have predicted.

Instead of the intended public launch followed by a period of consulting widely with communities, established businesses and start-ups across the region on what they want and need from the new body, the new economic development agency for the Scottish Borders and Dumfries and Galloway will be getting straight to work helping the region respond to coronavirus.

Indeed, it has already been in contact with the two local authorities for the region prior to launch so that it can hit the ground running as part of the joint response and recovery effort, and its board has had weekly virtual meetings in the run up to the launch

Never was economic development and business support more needed, but what this recovery looks like will be different for different communities and sectors, SOSE chair Russel Griggs tells Holyrood.

He says: “For communities it will be how do you get a community back together, what’s stalled, you know.

“All the art centres and all the community groups have shut all over the south of Scotland, a lot of the shops are closed, so it will be sector by sector looking at what they need to reinvigorate themselves and to go then into the future.

“And in many ways, [launching now] gives us a clean base to start from. So we’re not in the middle of anything, if I could put it that way, you’re starting from this base, as you come out of COVID, that’s a much more specific place to be and less fluid, perhaps, than it could have been before.”

The south of Scotland is made up of very small communities, with only four towns over the 10,000 population mark, and while that can make them fragile in some ways, Griggs suggests their size can be helpful: “Our communities are very small, but that makes them much more resilient. They look after themselves,” he says.

Across such a large and varied geographical area, though, the needs in terms of recovery and support are very different.

Griggs explains: “They need to recover, and they’ll recover in different ways. We need to make sure that they’ve got the right support to do so.

“The much needed and much welcomed national support is vital and has to meet the needs of our businesses and communities. We then need to make sure we complement that support.

“So, those places that have got busy high streets, like Newton Stewart or Castle Douglas, I suspect will want people to go out shopping, so we need to help them there.

“Across the region, we’ve great venues and event spaces. Their bookings have obviously just collapsed and they will want to make sure that they find ways to attract visitors back at the right time.

“And if you look at the range of tourist attractions we have like Abbotsford, and indeed the new tapestry centre which is going to open in Galashiels next year, they’ll be wanting to encourage visitors.

“So it’s going to be quite diverse and different what we do across the south of Scotland in the next year to 18 months to help each community and each sector grow again.”

A number of key sectors for the region – food and drink, hospitality, tourism – will need specific support. Other sectors such as the “rejuvenated” textiles industry in Hawick and renewables are also important for the region.

The first south of Scotland tourism TV campaign was recently launched. That has now been put on hold temporarily but getting visitors into the region again will be important for recovery. And along with growth in various sectors in the region, SOSE itself will be growing.

“I think in a year we’ll be looking to the future,” Griggs says. “The agency when it started on the first of April was on a three years transition as we build up our activity and capacity.

“We’re a start-up business ourselves, so we’ve started with what’s only probably 20 people on day one up to grow to maybe 150 people at the end of year three.

“So we’ll be growing ourselves as a business, never mind anybody else, but that again, allows us to be much more part of the community because we’ll be learning as we go along.”

Griggs hopes that this time next year the situation will have “moved on from this not very nice place we are at today and are back to some sort of normality that allows us to look ahead positively rather than worrying what’s coming up, as we are at the moment.”

But it’s not all just about post-coronavirus recovery. The long-term vision is to go beyond what was there before, to build more capacity in terms of skills, innovation, inclusive growth, jobs, strong communities and the infrastructure that is needed to facilitate that, such as transport and housing.

Griggs says: “We will be at the heart of what south of Scotland does. We want to establish the south of Scotland as a centre of opportunity, innovation and growth.

“And that is really where we are and our core values, which are really, really important to us, are to be inclusive, responsible, bold and striving. And that’s to move us forward all the time rather than move us backwards.

“And we do that by working with people and businesses right across the south of Scotland, growing their economy, providing investment, a lot of expertise and mentoring, inspiring the region to think bigger, create opportunities and help anyone – I  keep coming back to this – help anyone in any organisation who can help the south of Scotland, no matter how big or small they are and how they are constituted.”

On a practical level, SOSE has decided not to have a headquarters because wherever they put it, due to the size of the area, it would be in the wrong place. Instead it will be a “spoke and hub network” and, Griggs says, SOSE’s people will be “everywhere”.

He explains: “We’re starting initially with four hubs – in Stranraer, Dumfries, Selkirk and Hawick - where our teams can meet. But if you’re somebody in Eyemouth, or indeed in New Luce in Galloway, and you want to meet some of our staff, we will have arrangements with an organisation in that area so that we can go and borrow a desk, so you don’t have to travel if you’re in New Luce to Dumfries or if you’re in Eyemouth to Gala to meet with them; we’ll come to you.

“We will be everywhere. And that’s what we’ll be doing over the next six to nine months is getting about three or four in place and some of these hubs and spokes.”

Digital communications will be very important as well, with a website now launched. And it’s not simply about funding for businesses. SOSE will bring new capacity, new resources, critically, a voice to speak for the region, staff and expertise, working on everything from trying to get communities to build their own capacity and work together as one, rather than as a mass of individual community organisations, to lobbying government and national bodies on behalf of the south of Scotland.

Griggs says: “The agency is not just about money, it’s about advocacy, and a large part of our role will be in that advocacy area, [talking to] people like Transport Scotland and others and with the Scottish Government on more flexible use of planning powers.

“In small communities like Gatehouse of Fleet we probably don’t need another 200 houses but another handful would be really useful to unlock job opportunities.”

Housing is a vital issue, because if you brought a large business into many small communities in the south of Scotland, there wouldn’t be anywhere for workers to live and it could actually have a negative impact.

Inclusive growth and fair work are in the act that set up SOSE and both will be at the heart of the way the agency will work. It needs to benefit everyone.

Griggs says: “I don’t think people realise just how fragile some of these communities are. We need to make sure that we address potential barriers to places’ ability to grow and prosper.

“That’s at the heart of inclusive growth, ensuring that people can take up opportunities as they have places to live and can get to those jobs with a reliable and integrated public transport system.

“It is much more rounded economic development, if I could call it that … it is about looking at things much more holistically than just saying are we going to give £100,000 to that business, because we’ll be asking what does that business contribute towards the community, are its employees well looked after, etc, etc, etc.”

Part of the agency’s role, Griggs says, is to make sure that businesses think about their community responsibility as much as they do about their business responsibility, which is necessary for their own success too.

“There’s a really good discussion we could have about do businesses create communities or do communities create businesses, and I guess it’s a bit of both, but I’d argue that without a good strong community, businesses probably don’t survive in it.”

This interplay of community and business is going to be key to economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

But while coronavirus may be a setback, with resilient communities and a new development agency working with councils to coordinate support, along with the newly formed Convention of the South of Scotland to provide strategic oversight and make sure that all the public bodies in the south of Scotland are pointing in the same direction, the region should be able to look forward to moving beyond recovery and into growth.

This piece was sponsored by South of Scotland Enterprise.

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