The specific challenges faced by businesses in the Borders were examined in some detail last night (Wednesday) in Galashiels.
The Scottish Government’s Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, led by convener Edward Mountain, Conservative MSP from the Highlands and Islands, visited the Scottish Borders campus in Netherdale to hear from locals.
The group is holding an inquiry into the Bill which will create a new South of Scotland Enterprise Agency, and wanted to hear the specific needs of the Borders community.
A good number of local business leaders and community group representatives packed out the lecture hall, and the committee were left in no doubt as to the challenges faced by businesses based in the rural south.
Issues such as the inability to keep talented youngsters in the Borders; the difficulties in attracting said youths from other parts of the country; poor transport links; an ageing and depleting population; as well as poor digital and physical connectivity came up time and again throughout the evening.
Youth worker Mark Timmins aired one example of how difficult it is for youths to live and work locally.
He said: “The lack of transport is a massive issue.
“If you live in Hawick and get a job in Kelso, you have no chance of getting there in time with local transport.”
Greg Cuthbert of Newcastleton Community Council said: “We do have a declining population and we are now below critical mass.
“But we can’t put all our eggs in one basket.
“It’s not all about keeping youngsters here or attracting them in.
“We also have to help the young people who actually do want to stay in our region.”
Another member of the public said the new agency should be based on the model of the much-vaunted Highlands and Islands Enterprise Agency.
He said: “We do, after all, have islands here ... Hawick, Kelso, Jedburgh. It just so happens that they are surrounded by land, not water. It can take you longer to get from Kelso to Galashiels than it does from Oban to Tobermory.”
The new agency would be funded to the tune of £40m, and it is hoped that it would be used to allow small businesses to be given the chance to grow.
Also on the committee is South of Scotland list Labour MSP Colin Smyth, who has pledged to put forward a series of amendments to the bill establishing the new agency to ensure a legal requirement for it to consult the local community and to put in place a mechanism to be established for the new agency to be held to account by local stakeholders in the Borders.
Speaking after the meeting, he said, “It was vital for the committee to come to the South of Scotland to listen to local views as ultimately the most important people in this whole process are the residents of the south of Scotland.
“This needs to be their agency, not the government’s”.
“The agency must be rooted in the South of Scotland. That means it needs to have processes in place for the local community to hold it to account and the membership of the board needs to reflect the views of the local communities. If that does not happen then the agency won’t find the local solutions to the local economic problems we face in the south”.
He added: “There was real opposition to the Government simply being able to hand pick the board and chairperson of the new agency without local input.
“I intend to bring forward a number of amendments to the bill in the coming weeks to make sure it is far more accountable to the South of Scotland.”