The beautiful south
When MSPs passed the legislation needed to create South of Scotland Enterprise (SOSE) the aim, then rural economy secretary Fergus Ewing said, was to bring a “fresh and different approach” to the area. The opportunities the Scottish Borders and Dumfries and Galloway present as places to visit, live and work in had not been realised and it was agreed that a focused enterprise agency was needed to “capitalise on the tremendous untapped potential in the area, driving inclusive and sustainable growth whilst taking into account the area’s distinct economic circumstances”.
That was June 2019, though, and by the time SOSE launched in April 2020, far from focusing on sustainable growth, the agency had the impact of a global pandemic and national lockdown to contend with. It was not, says SOSE chief executive Jane Morrison-Ross, who joined from ScotlandIS in February 2021, the beginning the agency had been planning for.
“I don’t think anybody had a global pandemic on their radar,” she says. “We launched on 1 April, just as the country went into lockdown, and had to pivot very quickly. It was a very small team initially and instead of joining to put the building blocks in place they had to hit the ground running to respond to the pandemic and get support out the door to people as quickly as possible.”
Though the pandemic was far from over by the time Morrison-Ross joined SOSE, the feeling of being in full-on crisis mode had receded, meaning that for the past 18 months she and her team – which now numbers 140 people – have been able to shift their focus onto what the organisation was set up to do: improve and promote the region in all its diversity while ensuring local communities remain at the heart of everything it does.
“We have a tripartite goal – to drive inclusive growth, increase competitiveness and tackle inequality – and everything is so intertwined,” Morrison-Ross says. “We have to work in each of those areas and we also have to support and grow our organisation, but to do that we have to be supporting and working with our communities.
“We’re not out of the woods yet on Covid but about six months ago it started to feel like we could lift our heads a bit and focus on the future and our ambition. We’re really aiming high for the south of Scotland. We’re looking at the energy transition and also working with partners to look at skills, infrastructure, housing, transport, and we have a fantastic team that’s focusing on entrepreneurship.
“We’re creating an ecosystem that brings together all those aspects in a way that can drive growth while also really shouting about the south of Scotland.”
The south of Scotland is a large area geographically and there are huge differences between the communities there. SOSE’s role is to embed itself within those communities to help them to first of all identify what is needed to drive growth in their particular location and then to put all the building blocks in place to turn the plan into a reality.
Both the South of Scotland Regional Economic Strategy and the Scottish Government’s National Strategy for Economic Transformation have shaped SOSE’s work from the top down, but Morrison-Ross says having that kind of bottom-up community input is vital for ensuring resource is directed in the most helpful way. It is for this reason that she and SOSE chair Professor Russel Griggs OBE have been so involved in the organisation’s fact-finding, with the pair setting out on a 26-stop tour of the region as soon as Covid restrictions allowed, hearing the views of close to 500 people on the way. Everything SOSE has heard from the people of the south will inform its work in some way, with many of the views gathered on the regional tour helping shape its soon-to-be-published action plan.
“Our team works with communities to understand what they need and want; lots of communities have really come together and reached consensus,” Morrison-Ross says. “Newcastleton, for example, is a small community with lots of challenges, but a few years back they bought their own petrol pumps and electric vehicle charging points and that brought more people into the community. Now they are looking at how to get more business space and homes.
“We have people out working with businesses across the south of Scotland, from small microbusinesses to some of the biggest companies in the south.”
Among those are Sinclair Duncan Textiles, a Galashiels-based cashmere accessory manufacturer, which found its feet after the pandemic by launching premium brand Kinalba with a £100,000 grant from SOSE. Similarly, last summer SOSE provided £4.8m of funding – its largest-ever investment – to PPE firm Alpha Solway, enabling it to expand its operations in Annan and create over 300 jobs and apprenticeship opportunities at a new Dumfries manufacturing centre.
While the wellbeing of the south’s communities and economy are a major focus for SOSE, so too is the region’s environment, with Morrison-Ross stressing that ensuring communities are part of a just transition to net zero is the third of her main priorities.
This is reflected in much of the work SOSE has done to date, with the agency last year providing £1.9m of funding over five years to Galloway and Southern Ayrshire UNESCO Biosphere, an organisation formed to ensure the environment is nurtured and protected across a geographic area that is home to 95,000 people as well of an array of plant and wildlife. At the same time, it gave £25,000 to Birds Gardens Scotland CIC, a community interest company based in Oxton whose mission is to protect bird and plant species and facilitate conservation breeding and rearing programmes.
In spite of the positives, the area is not without its challenges, with communities across the region stressing that a lack of joined-up transport infrastructure and housing at both the affordable and premium ends are holding them back. Two-and-a-half years on from SOSE’s launch, and with the chaos of its pandemic-era early days firmly behind it, Morrison-Ross says the goal now is to ensure everyone – not just those living in the area – sees the south of Scotland as the kind of place they can live, work and learn in.
“I want to see the south of Scotland recognised as a thriving, innovative place to live,” she says. “It’s a really good place to live because the quality of life is excellent, it’s beautiful and the environment is fantastic, but there needs to be great access to a choice of jobs so young people choose to stay or come back.
“In five years, I’d love to see us having taken the work we are doing now forward in leaps and bounds so we are the UK capital of natural capital and recognised as a renewable energy powerhouse. I want the work we are doing now to have borne fruit and brought access to well-paid jobs and careers.
“It’s not just about helping the people we have here, though, but showing people it’s a really desirable place to relocate to. It’s about unlocking the secrets of the south.”
This article is sponsored by South of Scotland Enterprise. This article appears in Holyrood’s Annual Review 2021/22.