Over 300 officials and business people from the five areas covered by the Borderlands packed Dumfries’ Easterbrook Hall on Monday for the inaugural conference. They heard from a range of politicians and officials involved in the project and took part in workshops to help shape the final proposals, which will go to the Scottish and UK governments later this year.
The day’s key themes were energy, digital, transport, business growth, rural productivity, innovation and skills and destination. Speaker after speaker outlined the possibilities that the deal could bring for Dumfries and Galloway, Cumbria, Carlisle, Northumberland and the Scottish Borders over the next two decades.
Scottish Economy Secretary Keith Brown MSP told the audience of a ‘real sense that something is stirring here’, adding: “Growth deals have the power to be transformational.” He reaffirmed his government’s support for Borderlands and said: “We want to see an ambitious deal that delivers growth “The deal needs to focus on priorities that will make a difference and help the economy thrive. “It needs to be formed by what local people and business want to see.”
Support was also forthcoming from Scottish Secretary David Mundell MP, who said: “The Borderlands deal represents a unique opportunity to provide a real shot in the arm to our local economy at a time when it faces significant challenges.” And he called for “a coherent deal that will support the economy of the region, building on our strengths and improving the lives of people who live here.”
Dumfries and Galloway Council chief executive Gavin Stevenson highlighted that the Borderlands covers an area larger than Wales, comprising ten per cent of Britain’s land mass and has 1.1 million residents. But there are “very significant” issues of productivity, he said, highlighting an overall contribution of £22m to that national economy – £6300 per head less than the UK average. Mr Stevenson believes Borderlands could change that and said: “The potential of our area to perform is enormous. “This feels a once-in-a-generation – never in my career have I felt so much attention and potential.” However, he warned creating that vibrant economy will require a combined effort, adding: “We need to get out there, we need to shout, we need the world to know. “It’s our job to deliver a better future for our children and young people. I want to leave a legacy for the people who come after me.”
In her opening address, council leader Dr Elaine Murray told participants: “It is a one-off opportunity, but it has to be the right deal to achieve that success. “My message to both governments is that the Borderlands deal is not just about what governments can do for us, but also about what we can do for the economy of both Scotland and the UK.”
Meanwhile, South Scotland MSP Colin Smyth wants to see it featuring in the governments’ budgets. Speaking after Monday’s event, he said: “Once the final proposals are agreed, the Scottish and UK Governments must show real backing and match their warm words about the Borderlands with hard cash in their next budgets.”