Enterprise agency hopes for region

THE new enterprise agency for the south of Scotland must have a clear understanding of the larger impact that a handful of lost jobs can have on a rural area.

Chief executive officer of Third Sector Dumfries and Galloway Norma Austin Hart has pushed for a place-based approach to grasp what is happening with small businesses and social enterprises.

She made the recommendation while giving evidence at the Scottish Parliament’s Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee on the South of Scotland Enterprise Bill.

This sets out the aims of the new organisation, including how it will enhance the economic and social development of the area.

Ms Austin Hart used the example of Pinneys of Scotland in Annan closing with the loss of 450 jobs – the equivalent of Glasgow losing 4000 posts.

She said. “The approach will allow agencies to see the jobs as a collective group and to look at the whole picture so that they are able to respond to job losses in a strategic way.

“There needs to be a local understanding and a grasp of what is happening with small businesses and social enterprises, otherwise we will just paper over the cracks.”

The lead officer encouraged the new agency – when functioning – to consider the economy in an “integrated way” with businesses alongside social enterprises, communities and community-based organisations.

Ms Austin Hart agreed with Margaret Simpson, director of Scottish Borders social enterprise chamber – also giving evidence – that the new enterprise agency should not be “more of the same”.

Norma Austin Hart gives evidence to Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee

She said the organisation should bring forward “innovative ideas” on how to use the third sector to encourage not only young people but older generations to retrain and take advantage of career opportunities in the sector – an idea for shared apprenticeships was one, as was getting graduate career paths through the third sector.

Her evidence highlighted a new energy in the region with local organisations, such as the Stove Network in Dumfries, working with young people to shape the kind of place where they wanted to continue to live.

She also expressed surprise that the intention was for the agency to employ up to 175 people and said staff and its eventual location should wait until its remit, powers and objectives were more clearly communicated.

But she added: “There are good arguments for having several bases across such a vast region. We may not have emphasised the sheer scale of the region, and the needs of Stranraer are quite different to those of Hawick, Dumfries or Eyemouth. There is also a good case for co-location with other organisations that have a south of Scotland remit.”

She praised the agency’s model being based on Highlands and Islands Enterprise, which represented an opportunity to look at the economy’s regeneration in a different way. Agencies had to become more adept at targeting need, as there was difficulty identifying deprivation in Dumfries and Galloway’s economy – for example 80 per cent of people living in formally defined deprivation were not in the 15 per cent worst affected areas in the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation.

Ms Austin Hart also pushed for greater representation for the third sector and social enterprise on the activities of the new agency. She pointed out that there were 2300 voluntary organisations in Dumfries and Galloway with an equivalent number in the Scottish Borders.

There was also a call for the enterprise agency to have the same powers as those enjoyed by the Highlands and Islands Enterprise body, such as compulsory purchase. A funding approach that related to population would also be desirable. “Success will depend on the new agency developing close links with the Scottish Government, Scottish Enterprise and the other agencies that attract inward investment, so that it can ensure that the priorities for the merging south of Scotland economy, which will continue to change as the economy grows, are known and understood at national agency level,” she said. “That will mean the investment will come, if it is available.”