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Our friends in the north

Our friends in the north

“You are our closest neighbours and should be our closest friends in economic and social terms.” – Alex Salmond

Regardless of the outcome of next year’s referendum, councils in the north of England are asking serious questions about how they could, and should, be working with Scotland.

During a speech to business leaders in Newcastle last year, First Minister Alex Salmond said both Scotland and the north of England are dependent upon the goodwill of their people and the close economic interconnection which makes it a necessity. He said: “Scotland after independence will be a close friend. That is good for the people of Scotland, good for the people of these islands but in many ways good for our closest friends in the north east of England.”

Salmond’s words were clearly designed to allay some of the fears circulating south of the border about the potential for further competition from Scotland, following the referendum next year. The First Minister also hit out at the Coalition Government’s decision to scrap the multi-million-pound development agency, One North East, saying it was this decision, not his actions, which had created a situation in which the likes of Amazon opted to be based north of the border.

In the summer, academics from Northumbria and Durham universities were asked by the Association of North East Councils (ANEC) and Cumbria County Council to look at the implications of greater Scottish autonomy. As the north of England increasingly appears more disconnected from London and the south, many are starting to look to Scotland. The Borderlands report said councils and development agencies in the north east and Cumbria are well aware Scotland is already in a good position to attract new investment and with greater devolution and perhaps even independence, Scotland could become even more competitive. In particular, there are concerns that lower business taxes north of the border could have a big impact on the north of England, making it more difficult for the region to secure economic growth.

As Middlesbrough’s mayor, Ray Mallon, quoted in the report, said: “If the economic freedoms that independence would bring further strengthen Scotland’s hand, we could find ourselves between the anvil of a government that looks little further than the Home Counties and the hammer of a new ‘tiger’ economy to the north. That won’t be very comfortable.”

However, the research stresses there are also opportunities. It recommends the development of new collaborative relationships between the north east and Cumbria, and Scotland. This isn’t about setting up ‘talking shops’, but about creating practical cross-border networks and partnerships, according to researchers, who added that there can be practical collaborations on transport, energy, tourism, rural development, and education and skills, as well as shared concerns, such as the need for better road and rail links, opportunities for further linkages in the offshore oil and gas industry, and also development of tourism in the border areas.

Professor Keith Shaw of Northumbria University, one of the report’s authors, said: “There’s a lot at stake. With the independence referendum just over a year away, we need to be thinking about what it could mean for the north east and Cumbria. And we need to be expressing our views and concerns to both the UK and Scottish Governments. Even if it’s a No vote, Scotland will have more autonomy. We’ll need to try and avoid negative impacts in our region – and exploit the opportunities. I could imagine our region making common cause with Scotland on many issues, and our region’s economy benefiting from stronger links with a resurgent Scotland. We’ve been used to looking to London and the south east. Now it’s time to seek stronger connections with our neighbours in Scotland.”

Chief executive of Northumberland County Council, Steve Stewart, told Holyrood that a lot of the research around Scottish independence in England had focused on the potential threats posed by independence or further devolution.

He said: “Because I have a border with Scotland, it seemed to me that that wasn’t truly reflective of how people live their lives. I also thought there must be opportunities which might arise from further devolution in Scotland. Regardless of the outcome of the referendum, our view is that there are going to be further powers for Scotland. There are a lot of people who live in the Scottish Borders, who work in Berwick or shop there, or use the station. Similarly there is cross-border working between the local authorities on issues like adult care, personal social care, as well as the obvious things like highways, roads and winter services. Looking at ourselves, Cumbria, the Scottish Borders and Dumfries and Galloway, the economies are actually very similar, it just happens there is a national boundary in between. If you look at how those economies work, the main focuses are around rural issues, tourism and forestry, as well as food and drink and textiles. There are economic similarities and so the communities which arise out of those kinds of economies are quite similar.”

Stewart said the research provided an agenda of policies and services on which the northern council could work together with Scotland. “The north of England in certain ways is more like the south of Scotland than the south of England,” he added.

“There are some issues there which made us think, ‘why not look north a bit more’. That certainly chimed with some of the things Mr Salmond was saying when he came to Newcastle a year or so ago. It created a potential agenda for joint working across the border, no matter how hard the border is.

“The report suggests we should talk to each other more, and identify and pursue these areas of common interest through more joint working. We were contacted by both the Scotland Office and the Scottish Government following its publication, and I had conversations with people in both. I think there’s a degree of interest about how this could be made to work. But we don’t want this to get caught up in the referendum debate itself but my view, and the report suggests this, is that we should be working more closely together anyway. However, we are anxious it doesn’t become a political issue in the debate.”

Local Government Minister Derek Mackay emphasised Scotland’s existing ties with the north of England and said it is in both countries’ interests that these be developed and strengthened further, and that there be greater practical co-operation. He added: “We are keen that the Scottish Government builds on the Borderlands report and does all it can to help the councils around the Borders look at new ideas for co-operation.

“An economically stronger Scotland would be a major boost for our close neighbours in the north of England and we want to work with local authorities and their partners to help them meet the needs of their communities, improve business, transport and tourism and make their local areas better places to live. The areas share a common history and common interests with many people travelling across the border to live and work.”

Councillor Paul Watson, chairman of ANEC, which brings together the 12 authorities in the north east of England, said: “What the Borderlands report highlights is real scope for collaboration across borders at a time of heightened focus on new ways of working and a desire to deliver tangible economic and social benefits for our areas.

“Opportunities for co-operation and enterprise in areas such as renewable energy, North Sea oil and gas industries, transport, connectivity, tourism, education and skills were all strongly reflected in Borderlands.
“As recommended by our report, north east councils look forward to engaging with partners in Scotland and Cumbria to take forward a strategic forum to provide a platform for constructive dialogue, new ideas and avenues for co-operation.”

Meanwhile, David Parker, leader of Scottish Borders Council, said it is “vital” that there is a strong dialogue between the English and Scottish local authorities which neighbour the national border, on issues such as economic development, transportation, communications and other matters.
He said: “We experience common challenges and opportunities arising from our rurality and relationships with cities that are in close proximity to us. This initiative will build on our work with the South of Scotland Alliance, together with current and previous cross-border joint work.”

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