Rejuvenating the South of Scotland

The South of Scotland is big, beautiful and it’s dying, or at least it’s age profile suggests that it’s heading that way.

Borderlands – Our Future a report on issues facing the South of Scotland (defined as the UK parliamentary constituencies of Dumfries and Galloway; Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale and Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) published this week by the Westminster Scottish Affairs Committee highlights some of the issues: an ageing population, poorly paid jobs and poor infrastructure. It examines the problems facing the region, and comes up with some solutions which go in the right direction, but don’t seem to provide the step changes to which are really needed to revitalise the region.

Compared to the Scotland overall the population in the South of Scotland is older, and in particular there is a dearth of people aged 16 – 44 while over a quarter of the population are over 60.  This is the opposite of cities like Edinburgh and Glasgow where proportions of the population are in their twenties and thirties. Sustainable communities need to have reasonably balanced populations, and the demographics of the South of Scotland, and rural Scotland in general are becoming unsustainable. In Galloway and West Dumfries just over half of the population is of working age compared to 60 % in Scotland as a whole and 65 % in Glasgow. The problem isn’t that there are too many older people in rural areas, its that there are too few young ones.

Age profiles

Policies to address this tend to focus on creating more jobs and training in rural areas, without looking at why young people are leaving. Jobs are only part of the problem – for people in their teens and twenties social life is also important. Perhaps the nick-name for the region “Boredomlands” gives a clue – many young people there’s not much going on for them – sports and social facilities are limited; public transport is poor and more of less non-existent in the evenings –  a night out means having a car and not driving. As friends move into cities to work or study those remaining become increasingly isolated.

In many cases young people leave the area to study before they start to look for jobs permanent jobs Once they’ve gone they don’t come back quickly. One of the things which could be game-changing in keeping young people in the South would be to create a University of the South of Scotland. This is idea was supported by the Scottish Borders Chamber of Commerce in their evidence to the Scottish Affairs Committee. We do have some higher education in the South of Scotland with an outpost of Heriot Watt University at Galashiels, a mixed bag of courses from the University of the West of Scotland, the Open University and an outpost of Glasgow University at the Crichton Campus in Dumfries, plus bits of Scotland’s Rural College around Dumfries, but in all cases these are minor outposts not full blown universities based in the region and focussed on it. They’re all pretty small, teaching a limited range of subjects and not attracting the critical mass of students needed to be able to offering the wider social and cultural life associated with city universities. What the South of Scotland needs is a proper university offering a full range of subjects, beyond the current offering of “things to do with sheep and farming”. Young people in the South have as much right to learn about culture, languages, science and engineering as anyone else! A good university in the South of Scotland could not only enable young people to stay in the region, but could attract students from elsewhere in Scotland, the UK and Europe.

Not only would a university for the South of Scotland help young people to stay in the area, it would bring high skilled, well paid work in teaching and research as well as a range of supporting jobs and potentially also spin off companies. Students who have studied in the area would be more likely to settle there and start businesses of their own.

Of course if young people are to attend a local university they need to be able to get to it! It is almost impossible to reach Dumfries or Gala by public transport in time for a normal working day from areas which might be expected to be in their catchment, although it is possible to get to Edinburgh and Glasgow. The Scottish Affairs Committee report recognises that public transport needs to be improved, but focusses it attention on extending the new Borders railway from Tweedbank on to Hawick and Carlisle. This is the sort of big, expensive infrastructure project which governments like, but while the proposal is welcome, it neglects the more fundamental need for local public transport. Without connecting bus services most residents can’t reach Gala, Tweedbank or Hawick without driving! The need for public transport brings us back to the ageing population. Pensioners are disproportionate users of public transport, perhaps because they have free access to it, perhaps because they can no longer drive for themselves of perhaps simply because they have more time. However for them to use public transport there must be frequent and accessible services for them to use.

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Some of the other recommendations in the report are pretty obvious: employers everywhere should be paying a living wage and high speed broadband and mobile phone coverage are becoming increasing essential for individuals and business and should be rolled out in the South of Scotland as soon as possible. The need for better cross-border working with the north of England is highlighted, but there is no discussion of potential opportunities from improved links with Northern Ireland and the Republic which could benefit the southwest Scotland. Although the report is welcome as far as it goes, it is disappointing that rural housing, access to land and diversifying the economy are not touched on.

Housing is a particular problem, as high house prices couples with low wages price many people out of the communities which they grew up in. Planning rules to do not favour house building in rural areas, while the housing stock is increasingly bought up for use as second homes, holiday houses and by people retiring to the area. There is an urgent need for affordable and social housing to be built in rural areas and planning rules need to be rethought to allow this. Improving the right of communities to buy or control the land around them could help with this.

Agricultural, forestry and fishing activities inextricably linked with rural areas, but actually only employ about 4% of the workforce. The largest employers in the South of Scotland are the retail sector and healthcare and social services. Manufacturing supports a surprisingly high proportion of the population – at nearly 9 % this is more than in Glasgow. It is not clear from Scottish Government data what this includes, but traditional industries such as textiles and food process will fall into this as well as some agricultural engineering. A better understanding of what this manufacturing involves could enable it to be supported better.

The South of Scotland and its people have enormous potential, but our young people are our future – we cannot afford to lose them!

References

Data on age distribution and industry profiles taken from the 2011 census http://www.scotlandscensus.gov.uk/ods-web/area.html

An Out of Touch Budget from an Out of Touch Government

If the UK Government thought that they would be able to buy votes with their new budget for the rich and middle England it doesn’t seem to be working with their proposals being criticised by everyone from the Telegraph to the Greens. The Tories’ coalition partners the Lib Dems don’t seem to know whether they are criticising the budget or supporting it. This morning it was all over their website that the budget was a great thing and full of Lib Dem ideas (unfortunately I didn’t take a screen shot). This evening as it became apparent that just about everyone was unimpressed, Danny Alexander their Chief Secretary to the Treasury appeared with a yellow box and announced an alternative Lib Dem budget.

Fundamentally the problem is that the budget is built on a fixation with reducing public borrowing, but right now the cost of borrowing is lower than it’s ever been and any borrowing would lock in these low interest rates in fixed rate bonds for decades. If ever there was a time to invest in publicly funded infrastructure it is now! Not only would borrowing to invest mean that we got the infrastructure upgrades we need at rock bottom prices it would also create jobs taking people out of unemployment and back into the tax base as well as giving them dignity and self-respect and keeping their families fed.

We need to invest in electric vehicle infrastructure, upgrading the railways, rural broadband, the NHS, educating people and in our community assets. Apart from investment to improve rail services to SW England there’s nothing, and I suspect the money for the SW is only coming because the line washed into the sea a last winter leaving Cornwall with no direct public tranport links to the capital (and possibly also because the SW is one of the last bastions of the Lib Dems and something they will be desparately trying to hang on to!) Instead the budget continues asset strip the country and cut already over stretched budgets. This is so short sighted! Does the UK Government really think that in 10 or 20 years time companies will be rushing to invest here when our roads are full or potholes, our trains overcrowded and broadband plods through the cables like a tortoise? Probably they don’t care as sitting in their off shore tax havens in the sun so it will be irrelevant.

Is there anything good in the budget? Well, there are some steps to close down some tax loop holes, evasion and avoidance, and some increased taxation on bank profits, although more probably could be done.

Increased funding for mental health services, particularly services for young people is welcome, but we also need to look at why people are suffering for mental ill health in the first place. If people are suffering because the services they need are being cut; they don’t have a job or they have having to cover the workload of colleagues whose posts have been increasing mental health services is treating the symptom not the cause.

Income tax thresholds have increased, but this doesn’t help the least well off who don’t pay income tax anyway. If you’re using a foodbank or an apprentice working for £2.73 an hour this won’t help you! There has been no reduction in VAT rates which would have helped these people. And it’s hard to understand why the top tax band has been raised faster than inflation (except of course, that those at the top have not been restricting themselves to below inflation wage increases).

There’s some investment in new technology: £500 million for science and technology, a paultry £8 million to support the video games industry, £60m to support a “National Energy Catapault” in Birmingham; £100m for driverless cars (its unclear whether these would still use fossil fuels, and if I was a truck driver I’d be starting to worry about my job!) but all this pales into insignificance compared to £1.3 BILLION in tax cuts for the oil and gas industry. Yes, those highly profitable oil and gas companies! The days of fossil fuels are numbered. North Sea oil is running out, and if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change we cannot afford to continue to burn fossil fuels. Instead of giving away more money to oil companies who are increasingly indulging in “rent seeking” behaviour – threatening to leave the country if they don’t get a pay off – we should be investing in renewables and in upgrading the electricity supply network.

Yet again the fuel duty escalator has been frozen. This tax was supposed to increase annually to incentivise people to switch away from fossil fuels. Instead its been frozen for years. “Rural motorists” are always cited as people who benefit from this, but in fact the main beneficiaries are likely to be haulage companies. Rural fuel prices are high, but they could be tackled in other ways – investing in public transport would be a start! Other measures could include mandatory limits on fuel prices to ensure that rural prices are not hiked above the prices in areas where there is more competition or some sort of fuel voucher system for people in areas with poor public transport and high fuel prices. Blanket freezing of the fuel duty escalator benefits people in urban areas as much as rural ones, and given that there are more people in urban areas they benefit most.

The budget continues to sell off assets which the public have bailed out and made profitable, so instead of keeping the profits now being made by Lloyds we’re selling it along with the government share of Northern Rock’s and Bradford and Bingley’s mortgages. We pick up the tab in the bad times but don’t keep a share of the profits in good times. Where’s the sense in that?

Of course we can lift our glass to cuts in excise duty for the Scotch whisky industry! Is this a major employer in Scotland? It’s difficult to find the figures, but compared to the NHS or councils probably not. But it sounds so tartan and iconically Scottish. How could any Government which so enthusiastically supports the Scotch whisky industry be accused of being focussed in SE England?

There are many areas of taxation which don’t get a mention: inheritance tax, capital gains tax and corporation tax are conspicuously absent. But hey, what would “ordinary people” know about these – they’re only paid by the rich so we mustn’t raise them!

So what about public spending? Nothing is said about key areas of spending: benefits and the NHS don’t get a mention, but given the spending targets and tax give aways these will have to suffer swinging cuts. But never mind we can cheer ourselves with the thought that £1 million will be spent to celebrate the battle of Agincourt (that’s bound to bring in lots of tourists from France!) and an additional £40 million will be added to the fund to replace church roofs.

In summary an out of touch budget from an out of touch government!