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26 March 2019

S5M-16542 South of Scotland Enterprise Bill: Stage 1

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh): The next item of business is a stage 1 debate on motion S5M-16542, in the name of Fergus Ewing, on the South of Scotland Enterprise Bill.

14:29
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16:05

Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

As the committee proceeded with its scrutiny of the bill, it was an absolute delight to have the opportunity to visit the south of Scotland.

My personal connections with the area are extremely limited. My grandfather was married in Eyemouth on 2 May 1890, but he came from West Lothian and his wife came from Northumberland, so I have no idea how that happened. My first visit was on 20 January 1952; I was five, and my father was preaching at the church in Leitholm. Maureen Watt might be interested to know that, in the late 1960s, I had the first yoghurt of my entire life, on the harbour at Kippford, while participating in the Scottish OK dinghy sailing championships. I did not do too well in the championships but I enjoyed the yoghurt.

A number of issues have come up in the debate. Alex Neil properly identified that the border area that the new agency will cover is not a single, cohesive, homogenous area. When the committee went to Galashiels, we got a different response to what is going on to that which we got when we went to Dumfries.

I say immediately that Gala was substantially easier to get to. We got on the train to Galashiels and then walked and got a taxi to the venue, and we were able to return on the train, on a midweek evening. As for Dumfries, if the committee had not previously realised the important need for infrastructure investment in the area, the journey to Dumfries—for me, at least, coming from the north of Scotland—perfectly illustrated that need. I was not persuaded that I could get back from Dumfries to Linlithgow—where I have a house in which I live during the parliamentary week—in the evening, so I had to drive from the north of Scotland all the way down to Dumfries and then back to Edinburgh.

That was a minor inconvenience for me, on a single occasion, but it perfectly illustrates the need for investment for the people who live and work in the area. Transport is an important issue, and I think that there is a consensus on the need to do something about it. The new agency can take a lead in promoting the issue, working with the regional transport partnership.

We have talked a lot about Highlands and Islands Enterprise. I think that Kenny Gibson and I are the only constituency members in the chamber whose constituencies cross the boundary between the Scottish Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise areas. Some 15 per cent of my electors are in the Highlands and Islands Enterprise area. As a constituency MSP who is exposed to both agencies, I see how markedly different the two agencies’ priorities and modes of operation are.

We are right to consider Highlands and Islands Enterprise’s way of operating as the model for the south of Scotland agency. It is clear, for example, that there is an important emphasis on social responsibility and social enterprise. HIE’s documentation talks about its being aim to

“Support social enterprise and community-led development through our Community Account Management programme”
.

I am not suggesting that that programme should be lifted, unchanged, to the Borders, but it is worth having a look at, especially given that the new agency is likely to be dealing with similar problems to those that were present at the time of the creation of the Highlands and Islands Development Board and, subsequently, HIE.

The Highlands area now has Inverness, which has been fundamentally transformed in the 50 or so years since my wife left her home territory. It is now a very significant regional conurbation with a strong economy, but that still leaves a lot of the Highlands needing support. Dumfries has no equivalent of Inverness, but we might hope that the intervention of the new body might get us there.

The way in which Highlands and Islands Enterprise works is fundamentally different from Scottish Enterprise. It has a different account management structure whose focus reaches much closer to community bodies and small enterprises in a way that Scottish Enterprise does not.

The fact that incomes are lower in the border areas is a key indicator of the need to do what is proposed. It is important, too, that we look at helping communities to make their own decisions. Highlands and Islands Enterprise allows community account management to help

“communities to ... identify and realise their aspirations”.

In other words, it is not centralised decision making—the Highlands telling them what to do. We do not want that model in the border counties either.

It is very important that the constitution of the board and the way in which it works ensure strong lines of accountability from the board back to its communities and strong channels for input from communities, to allow the board to be demonstrably responsive to them. That is quite different from the idea of a board that is representative. I want people with the greatest skills and people who understand and, preferably, live in the area concerned. I want people to be there not simply as representatives but because of their skills and to sustain accountability and responsiveness.

I will be happy to support the motion at decision time.

16:12

Stewart Stevenson
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