Time to transform the forgotten South

Broughton from CorstaneIn the last days of this parliament came one of the most interesting and useful reports I’ve seen in five years of the Scottish Affairs Committee. Our Borderlands, Our Future sets out a vision for the South of Scotland that tackles the lack of jobs with decent wages and calls for much better connectivity, whether public transport or broadband. Coming so late in the Parliament it risks being a “nice to have” document that sits on a shelf. That would be an enormous missed opportunity. Here’s five things the report recommends that should be implemented immediately whoever wins on May 7th.

  1. Pay everyone the living wage

The report states “While we recognise the concerns of employers in the South of Scotland, particularly those running small businesses and micro-businesses, of the potential costs of the living wage, we see no justification for not paying workers a living wage in the UK in 21st century.” This recognition that there’s no excuse for poverty pay is hugely welcome, as is a recognition that rural poverty is so often hidden. Greens advocate raising the minimum wage to the living wage immediately and raising that to £10 an hour by 2020. The report calls for a living wage for all public sector employees as a good step towards raising the incomes of all workers across the region.

2. Work together to create better opportunities for young people Young people are the one group in society who have been more disadvantaged by austerity than any other. Youth unemployment remains stubbornly high across the UK but this is exacerbated by the lack of opportunity for young people in the South of Scotland, both in terms of jobs but also in training and learning opportunities. The report calls on the next UK Government to work together with the Scottish Government to develop a comprehensive youth opportunity strategy across the region, focusing on unemployment and underemployment. I’ve written about these issues in another blog here. Borders Railway

3. Extend the Borders Railway and address chronic public transport issues The report welcomes the new Borders Railway link from Edinburgh to Galashiels but points out (as would anyone with half a brain) that it doesn’t go far enough and needs to connect onto Carlisle. I’d go a step further and connect eastwards through the Borders to Berwick, reintroduce rail lines through the centre of the region to connect through Peebles, Biggar and beyond (to Lanark one way and perhaps Kilmarnock the other?), and rebuild the rail line across the Solway Coast from Dumfries to Stranraer and Cairnryan. Sadly the report doesn’t look at bus transport but calls for better connected roads. Surely we can do both – make sure roads are properly maintained and connected but focus on creating an infrastructure that gets people out of their cars and into public transport – something that’s just not feasible right now. Better integrated bus and train links that are affordable, reliable and accessible is something that’s desperately needed. Mobile coverage

4. Rollout superfast broadband now and prioritise better mobile coverage There is a desperate need for decent broadband across the region. As the report points out; “Access to superfast broadband is not a luxury add-on for rural communities, but a key part of the infrastructure required for those communities to thrive and develop. We note the evidence in relation to the link between a lack of infrastructure and youth migration”. Anyone across the region will tell you that basically broadband and mobile phones don’t really work, at least not in a reliable way that would mean you could confidently work from home or access services online. If we’re to build the conditions for a thriving economy in the region, this infrastructure is a basic necessity.

5. Create an enterprise agency for the South The report recognises the invisibility of the oft-forgotten South in the way Scottish Enterprise operates and calls for the equivalent of Highlands and Islands Enterprise for the region. “The success of the Highlands and Islands Enterprise is as much about culture, energy, commitment and leadership as it is about structures. We are confident that the south of Scotland can achieve similar success.” HIE is far from perfect but what it’s achieved is a focus on the north and the islands and a willingness amongst decision makers in parliament and government to invest in the region. For those in the South, languishing on poverty pay, stuck at home because of nonexistent or poorly connected transport an unable to communicate via broadband or mobile phone, such a focus on prosperity and investment could make a transformative difference to their lives.

Crucially, the report calls for the Scottish and UK Governments to work together to deliver this change for the South. Regardless of who’s elected on May 7th and in next year’s Holyrood election, the time for the South to be forgotten about is over.

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