We hear a great deal about multi-billion pots of public money being invested in ‘Northern Powerhouses’ in England and Big City Deals for the likes of Glasgow and Edinburgh. The sums are mouth-watering and anything that can combat society’s inequalities, lack of opportunity and encourage ethical enterprise in urban landscapes should be applauded.
So, pardon me, for standing up for our rural places of bird-song, spring lambing and babbling salmon streams. For those who have devoted their professional lives to servicing Scotland’s market towns and surrounding countryside, and I include myself, you can appreciate there is a feeling that we are being short-changed when it comes to our fair share of government expenditure.
In my case, having spent 25 years as a lawyer in the Scottish Borders, there is clear evidence our communities have been poorly-served by politicians and policy-makers in both Edinburgh and Westminster. Hopefully, this is changing. Borders communities received a long-awaited stimulus from the re-opening of the Borders Railway to Tweedbank. Hoteliers and restaurant owners are generally positive about the arrival of the railway, though some shopkeepers and retailers are concerned day-trippers from the Borders are talking their money to Edinburgh.
Tourism remains one of the region’s strengths and the country attractions, such as Walter Scott’s home at Abbotsford, have shown that investment in the experience can pay dividends in terms of visitor numbers. The railway has been a qualified success but over-crowded trains in peak hours threaten to tarnish the good work – and much more still needs to be done to enhance the opportunities for people living in the Scottish Borders.
The railway has encouraged a mini-boom in housing, although a connected boom in house prices has not transpired yet. We need to retain young people with good job prospects. Too many still drift off to the bright lights of the big cities and don’t return. The private rental market for one and two-bedroom properties is buoyant in the Borders. Wage levels are generally lower than in Edinburgh and Glasgow, so young people are often stuck in rental accommodation. There is a lack of affordable housing for first-time buyers and we need appropriate mortgage finance to help.
There are many advantages about living and working in the Scottish Borders. The landscape and access to the land is wonderful and tourism is doing well. We are seeing a rise in the number of visitors coming to enjoy our region. But it is day-trippers, short-break, rather than longer hotel and residential stays.
We have seen larger professional services firms setting up offices in Galashiels, which is welcome. The railway has enhanced the working experience for those able to be more flexible, with places such as Stow finding it a lot easier to connect with Edinburgh. Now we need a direct rail service to Glasgow.
Great businesses can and do prosper in the Borders. Kyowa Kirin International, formerly ProStrakan, the specialist pharmaceutical company in Galashiels is doing exemplary employee development. During a staff welfare week, they had spin and yoga sessions, massage and even a session from myself on will-writing.
Stewart Technology in Tweedbank is another outstanding contract electronics firm, exporting technology around the world. The arrival of the Borders Whisky Company in Hawick is bringing more long-term jobs. Borders College, with its excellent agricultural courses, and Heriot-Watt University in Galashiels, with its expertise in textile design, are all reporting increases in interest from potential students, many from outside the region.
I have come to love the Borders way of life, bringing up my family here. Its communities and people are all proudly individual. I recently had the privilege of becoming the longest-serving member of the legal profession working in Selkirk sheriff court.
Some of my learned Edinburgh friends can be rather patronising about the Scottish Borders, telling us when they visit they find the values and lifestyle lost in the big city 35 years ago. Yes, in parts you can still leave your door unlocked, and people ask you ‘How you are doing’, and there is a strong sense of community and identity. We want to retain these virtues but we also need a modernised and economically successful Borders too.
Ian Burke is a director of Borders Employment Law, and a partner with legal firm and estate agents, Bannerman Burke Taits.