Infrastructure projects are vital to growth, writes James Bream of the Aberdeen and Grampian Chamber of Commerce
THE first by-election in this Scottish parliamentary term took place last month in Aberdeen’s Donside constituency, and while the seat didn’t change hands, the campaign highlighted an interesting set of priorities.
It’s not the referendum on 18 September 2014 which is the critical date for the future of our country, at least not in the North-east of Scotland.
Of course the referendum is a big discussion point around the North-east, but it isn’t the most pressing, pertinent or enduring on the region’s agenda.
Roads and congestion are the topics that are being pressed on candidates on the doorstep.
That could probably be redefined as the delivery of key infrastructure projects, the role of Aberdeen city centre in the make-up of the “Oil Capital of Europe” and the normal day-to-day challenges faced by the buoyant North-east economy.
So, if we were asked about the most critical date for the area, we’d possibly go for summer 2018. This isn’t anything to do with negotiations around an independent country, or the date of football’s World Cup in Russia – and Scotland’s next chance to qualify.
This is about what will have happened in the North-east in the years between 2014and 2018, if everything goes according to plan.
This assertion becomes a lot clearer with an outline of what will have happened by then.
• The long-awaited bypass around the city – the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route - will be complete
• The international airport serving the area will have been properly joined up to the roads network therefore improving access
• Issues around pedestrianising the city centre will have been resolved
• Major city centre projects, including the development of the former council headquarters, will be complete
• Rail improvements will be in place, as well as a potential extension to the harbour
So, 2018 is the point when the infrastructure in Aberdeen will begin to move from being one of the most reported constraints to growth, to becoming a net contributor instead. The electorate knows that this is important to its future.
At Aberdeen & Grampian Chamber of Commerce, we believe our region has the potential to contribute even more to the Scottish and UK economy.
Investment in these projects is overdue but it will help our region contribute even more. This is all the more exciting when we consider some key statistics pulled together by the Chamber’s new independent research unit:
• 70 per cent of businesses in the North-east want to grow over the next two years
• Our retail sector has soared in the UK retail rankings from the low 30s in 2005 to 12th in a recent report. Eighty-seven per cent of retailers are performing as well as, if not better, than UK comparators
• Unemployment is as low as 1.2 per cent in Aberdeenshire and 2 per cent within the City of Aberdeen
• The economy is forecast to grow by 2.4 per cent in 2013 and by 2.6 per cent in 2014 against a challenging national picture
There is no debate that the North-east already contributes significantly to the national economy, but regardless of how the nation is defined in the future, it has the potential to contribute even more.
The North-east economy is not independent from the rest of Scotland, the UK or the world. Indeed we are one of the most globally connected regions in Europe. However without continued investment in infrastructure, the region is at risk of becoming detached.
Transport links both within and to the region that are below par, failing or at risk of being lost could put our potential in peril.
In practice, great improvements to achieve would be a two-hour train journey time to the Central Belt, vastly improved digital connectivity and retaining multiple air links into London, and particularly global air links via Heathrow.
The good news is that a strong business case can be built for all these improvements, if there is someone willing to read it.
The ambition exists in the North-east to realise its full potential, but the question is whether this potential is fully understood in Holyrood, Westminster and the City of London.
• James Bream is research and policy director at Aberdeen & Grampian Chamber of Commerce