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by Staff reporter
27 August 2021
Associate Feature: Looking South

The Hilltop Leaf cannabis farm, south of Scotland

Associate Feature: Looking South

The south of Scotland is having a moment right now. Between the Borderlands growth deal, a bid to become city of culture in 2025, the opportunities of the post-COVID focus on sustainable tourism and people looking to work remotely, numerous regeneration projects, a new economic strategy, and Scotland’s first rural 5G centre, it’s a region with a lot going for it. 

At the heart of this is South of Scotland Enterprise (SOSE). Launched in April 2020 with a unique remit to support both businesses and communities across the south, it’s fair to say its first year turned out to be somewhat different than expected, but that hasn’t stopped it from being very productive. 

Despite all the obstacles presented by COVID, the stats so far are impressive. SOSE has awarded around £11.7m to 172 organisations, helped sustain 88 businesses, safeguarded or created 3,700 jobs and invested £8.9m in capital assets and projects.

Among these are £4.8m for Dumfries-based PPE manufacturer Alpha Solway, £1m towards the community buyout of the Langholm Estate, £1.9m over five years for the Galloway and South Ayrshire Biosphere and, perhaps more unexpectedly, £690,000 of support for Scotland’s first medicinal cannabis business, Hilltop Leaf.  

Equally as important are the smaller amounts of support that SOSE has provided to many hundreds of smaller businesses, SMEs, community trusts, groups and organisations which, in many cases, has led to an impact far greater than would be imagined.  

The year since launch has seen capacity grow too, from just a handful of staff to over 100 including a new net zero director in the form of Dr Martin Valenti, a first for any Scottish Government non-departmental public body, showing SOSE is taking just transition to net zero seriously and putting itself out there to do whatever it takes to influence outcomes not just in the UK, but globally.

“I think that we have massive opportunities in the south of Scotland and we’re just at that pivotal point, coming out of the COVID pandemic and looking ahead, and what’s exciting me is the level of ambition and aspiration for the south of Scotland, not just from us, but from the communities and the businesses that we’re working with and the new regional economic partnership,” South of Scotland Enterprise chief executive Jane Morrison-Ross says.

Appropriately for an area famed for its textiles, Morrison-Ross talks about the warp and the weft, with several key themes running through their work. One is climate change and the just transition to net zero, which is being particularly brought into focus by COP26. 

Morrison-Ross explains: “COP26 has been a great catalyst, but actually net zero is now going to go horizontally through everything we do. We’ve got our new net zero director, Martin Valenti, who’s joined us. Martin is going to be working really hard to make sure that that focus is there. And that focus is there whether we’re working with an SME and micro business or a community or turning a spotlight on the good stuff that’s happening in the south.”

Another key focus is technology and innovation, perhaps not something that people would associate with such a rural area, but it is close to Morrison-Ross’s heart, who joined SOSE in February from tech sector body ScotlandIS. 

“I think the technology piece is really exciting,” she says. “Innovation generally is going to be another [theme], a bit like net zero. It’s going to permeate everything we do. And it won’t all be technology-related innovation. We’re really excited about the potential for innovation in traditional industries, whether it’s forestry or agriculture, or innovation in the supply chains around those. Quite a lot of that may well be either driven or enabled by different technologies and we’re working just now with all of the innovation centres actually in Scotland.”

SOSE chief executive, Jane Morrison-Ross, and SOSE chair, Professor Russel Griggs OBE, launching the new SOSE app

Some of that will be helping SMEs and micro businesses make better use of digital to reach international markets or for innovation around their products and services, but there will also be a sector focus, such as how they can help manufacturing companies take advantage of AI, and creating aggregated digital services for SMEs, with tourism the first sector to be supported. 

“Companies that currently wouldn’t know where to go necessarily, or how to find that kind of support could come to this aggregated point and find the right company to help them with CRM [customer relationship management] and access a student from one of the colleges or universities to help them understand what to do with that,” Morrison-Ross explains.

“Because we recognise a lot of businesses are really small and they don’t have the resources or the budgets to be able to bring in people with that expertise.”

And the innovation doesn’t just extend to helping others. SOSE recently launched its own app to make it easier for people to get in contact, stay updated and even upload photos.

Another recent development is a bid for the Borderlands region to be named city of culture, now that changes to the rules allow regional partnerships to put themselves forward.

Despite a short time to put an expression of interest together, the support from across the creative and cultural sector was “absolutely phenomenal”, Morrison-Ross says, and what had started as a south of Scotland proposal morphed into a Borderlands bid, working with local authorities in the north of England as well. This also brings in some of those key themes. 

“Where the thinking came from was that we would align it to the theory of just transition and net zero but using culture as a catalyst and culture to create stories, narrative for the future of how we would do that but also drawing on that history and heritage. 

“And Martin [Valenti] said something early on about climate change has no borders so neither should we in how we tackle it, and that set the team off with some great ideas and really allowed us to weave across the border that’s there, with the Borderlands councils, but it also allows us to bring in the creative and cultural piece that’s broader than just performing arts and film. 

“It will have all of those amazing things because we’ve got great stuff happening, but it allows us to bring in science and philosophy and history and heritage, and look at the legacy it can leave and what we can do for young people on the back of it. So I’m really excited.

“The team put in an absolutely exceptional expression of interest. Even if we’re not successful, I think the attention it will bring to the south of Scotland and the five councils could be really, really powerful for us anyway.”

And the geography of the region is significant too, says Morrison-Ross, suggesting they “need to make real use of that position across the south as almost the jam in the sandwich”. 

“You know, we’ve got brilliant access to the rest of Scotland. We work really closely, obviously, with Scottish Enterprise, but particularly with Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), because we share so many of the challenges and opportunities around remote and rural communities.

But we’re also in that layer that gives us great access to south of the border. There is a great opportunity to build on that. And also culturally and historically there’s so much in common with the north of England. You know, you start with the Border reivers and work out from there. There’s real historic roots.”

Of course, one of the things shared with other rural areas such as the Highlands is the challenge of keeping young people in the area. SOSE has already had its first intake of apprentices and paid interns but is looking more widely at opportunities for young people in the region.

“We’re working with all of the colleges and the universities at the moment as well, because if we’re going to take something positive from the last 18 months of the COVID crisis and the global pandemic, it’s got to be around the acceleration of the technological adoption, and the opportunities and choices it can bring to remote and rural communities. 

“You know, young people now should have the chance to access courses they’ve never been able to access before, because the universities have shown they can be delivered from anywhere to anywhere.

“We’re looking now at how we can increase the choices available to young people who might not want to leave to study, but also how we can increase the job opportunities available to young people who do want to leave, but we’d like them to have the option to come back. 

“There’s all sorts of interesting stuff happening in traditional skills areas as well, talking to some of the larger estates and the colleges about the need for traditional artisan and craftspeople skills too.”

Now into its second year, SOSE has an updated operating plan, it is working with partners to develop the region’s first economic strategy and it is working on making the customer journey as simple as possible. 

“I think essentially what we’re looking to do is to really focus and deliver real value for the south of Scotland,” Morrison-Ross says.

“Some of it is around that innovation and the digital piece and how that can work. It’s also not losing focus on the key and traditional industries that have brought and added so much value to the south, whether that’s tourism or agriculture or food and drink, we don’t want to lose sight of the enormous value there.  

“I think it’s also just reminding people that we are here for communities as well as businesses. So we’re keen to hear from communities as well. And that as we come out of COVID recovery, hopefully, and continue to face some of the challenges there, that we are hugely ambitious for the south of Scotland.

“And we’re at a point where we’ve got a fantastic window of opportunity to really make the south of Scotland the shining light and the lead, whether it’s in city of culture or it’s in net zero. Now is the time for the south.” 

This article was sponsored by South of Scotland Enterprise (SOSE).

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