A bid to secure national park status for a vast swathe of the Borders is gathering pace following a meeting at Jedburgh Town Hall last Thursday.
More than 150 people from across the region attended a panel discussion about the campaign, spearheaded by Newcastleton’s Jane Bower, vice-chairman of the Association for the Protection of Rural Scotland.
At the meeting, Professor Bower, in the chair, announced that a grant of nearly £9,500 had been secured from the Big Lottery Fund to conduct a feasibility study for presentation to Scottish Borders Council next year.
Participants came from from Coldstream to Langholm and from both sides of the border, and included representatives of local businesses, farmers, landowners, foresters and interested residents, plus several councillors.
Professor Bower said: “We began with a simple objective – to gauge local support for a proposal that could unite the region’s diverse businesses, but especially the tourism, agriculture, forestry and recreation industries behind a powerful, internationally recognised brand with the potential to transform the Scottish Borders’ economy.
“This meeting way exceeded our expectations.
“Understandably, a few people remain to be persuaded of the widespread benefits that national park status would bring, but the vast majority of participants were supportive in principle.
“We were, quite frankly, astonished and delighted to see so much interest shown in taking a bottom-up, cross -Borders, and borders, approach as a means to protecting and promoting the region’s outstanding natural assets and heritage, rather than the top-down, rather piecemeal initiatives that have had only limited success over the years.”
Professor Bower claimed towns beyond the area covered by the bid could also prosper, through what she called a halo effect.
She said: “The halo effect of benefits rippling far outwithpark boundaries are well understood. Research shows that for every £1 spent in a national park, £10 is spent in the surrounding areas.
“In Wales, for example, and to quote a tourism business owner there ‘a huge amount of the country’s lively tourism business is down to the drawing power of the parks. Because visitors often don’t know where the boundaries of the national park are, they just assume we are all in the park.”
“As this proposal has the potential to benefit people in a huge swathe of the Scottish Borders, it is likely to become a major issue for candidates during the run-up to Scottish Border Council’s elections in May next year.”
The council is yet to be convinced that national park status would be beneficial, however.
In September, Hawick and Hermitage councillor Ron Smith, its executive member for planning and development, said council officers, having met campaigners, felt the proposal was “unlikely to meet the qualifying criteria set out in the National Parks (Scotland) Act 2000”.
He added: “In addition, they are not convinced a national park designation would actually deliver the benefits the proposers are suggesting. he stated.
“Officers also have concerns about the economic implications of the park, its administration and financial viability.
“As matters stand, they are not convinced a sound case has been made.”
However, he gave an undertaking that the feasibility study would be “considered in due course”.