Bell rings positive note over railway, but sounds investment concerns

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THE councillor charged to lead the economic development of the region over the next five years has described the Borders railway, due to open in 2014, as “a tremendous driver for potential job creation”.

Stuart Bell, the only first-time councillor to have been appointed to an executive position since Scottish Borders Council’s inception in 1996, has also called for the national development agency, Scottish Enterprise, to “get a tighter focus” on the Borders and to follow in the high investment footsteps of the Highlands and Islands.

Speaking exclusively to TheSouthern this week, Councillor Bell admitted his colleagues on the new SNP/Independent/Lib Dem coalition had made a “leap of faith” in entrusting him with a portfolio which is at the heart of that administration’s manifesto.

But he believes he is more than up to the task. “When the election result was announced, I stated my intention to make waves and not be someone who is going to coast along quietly and not upset anyone,” he said. “I said I would try to be the voice of those who haven’t the confidence, the ability, the energy or just the time to speak up for themselves and that is what I will do.”

So why did Mr Bell, 63, a widower, who was comfortably returned in Tweeddale East (outpolling all his rivals on first preference votes) decide to stand, having previously confined himself to acting as an agent for others?

“Serving on my local community council [latterly as secretary of Clovenfords CC], I came to understand not only something of how SBC actually works, but also some of the deep frustrations many people feel as a result of the mismatch between what they expect a local authority to do and how they perceive it as operating in practice.

“It always struck me as odd that individual officers and managers at SBC were competent and committed, but the outcomes – what the council actually does on the ground – did not match the public’s expectations.

“Trying to bridge that gulf between politicians and the public and trying to foster ways of empowering individuals were the things I found most rewarding on the community council and I now have the opportunity to extend this.”

A member of the SNP since 1973, Mr Bell had amassed 25 years of experience in management in the manufacturing sector in the UK and Europe, and a further decade running his own consultancy business.

“I know how business activity integrates with local economics and what the priorities and problems are,” said Mr Bell. “As a consultant, I sought to maximise outputs for small to medium-sized enterprises [SMEs] and that has, I believe, equipped me well for a Borders economy which rests so heavily upon such smaller operators.”

Mr Bell welcomes the new Newtown coalition’s commitment to giving a stronger focus to economic development and making it central to the work of all departments.

“I totally agree with [SBC leader] David Parker that we must all, regardless of party affiliation, do all we can to make the Borders and area in which we want to live, work, grow up and invest.”

Specifically, Mr Bell said he wants to counter the loss of skilled and talented young people from the region and see more high quality jobs and apprenticeships available to school leavers across a range of sectors, such as tourism, textiles, agriculture and forestry.

“I believe the Borders Railway will be a tremendous driver for potential job creation,” said Mr Bell. “We can be in a position where businesses will look to the Borders to invest because access will be much more direct and that, in turn, creates jobs and will bring more money into the local economy.”

Asked how a council squeezed of funds can find money for other ambitious initiatives, he told us: “There are a whole range of resources already in place, but Scottish Enterprise needs to get a tighter focus on the Borders, following the Highlands and Islands Enterprise model. Continuous infrastructure improvement, including next-generation broadband, will come from both public and private sector investment and make a huge difference.”

Currently studying for a master of arts degree in philosophy, Mr Bell believes his political allegiance equips him well for his challenging role. “To me, the SNP stands for social democracy and the sovereign rights of the Scottish people to make their own decisions in their own best interests.

“Local government is absolutely at the centre of that equation. The SNP is not about some high-powered distance group from a public school elite.

“We have our own parliament led by the people we, the Scottish nation, elected with an overwhelming majority and we now have a council which I am determined will do all it can to improve the economic environment of the Borders.”