Borders Business Forum

Convener, James Aitken’s speech to the Borders Business Breakfast meeting, the prelim to the Borders Business Form, held at SBC Council HQ, Newtown St Boswells on Saturday 16th February 2013

Good morning.

Before I start, can I just say how great it was to see Scotland win last Saturday.  Not just win, but play so well and with as usual a massive contribution from the Borders.  We will remember Stuart Hogg’s try for a long, long time.

Now to why we are here today and why I think we need a forum for businesses in the Borders.

Let’s look back for a minute.

In his book, the “Waverley Route”, David Spaven discusses some of the reasons why we lost our railway.  One of these was the fractured response from various groups and organisations in the Borders, including business organisations.

Ironically the mixed messages from the Borders also did not help the campaign for the return of our railway.  It gave a great deal of ammunition to those opposed to the re-opening of part of the Waverley line.

Then there was the campaign, in which I was involved, to save the Border Reivers professional rugby team.  Again the lack of a unified response meant there was little chance of us persuading the SRU to change its mind.

Now ask ourselves: are we really putting enough pressure on the Scottish Government on improving the A7, the A68 and the dualling of the A1 to the English Border?

Then there is the bigger picture.

It is no exaggeration to say that these are momentous times in Scotland.  There will be a referendum on Scottish independence in 2014.  Scotland could again be independent by March 2016.  There is also the possibility of a referendum on UK membership of the European Union.

It is very easy for politicians to ignore us if we are not clear in what we are asking or arguing for.

These, in my opinion, are just some of the reasons why we need a Borders Business Forum.

The idea of a Borders Business Forum is not that we will agree on everything.  Of course we won’t.

There are though certain issues that we could come together and debate and hopefully find a common voice.

These issues might include the campaign to extend the Waverley line to Carlisle, superfast broadband of which we have just heard about, the quality of our TV and media coverage and the dualling of the A1 to the English Border.  There are of course many others.

When I took over as Convener of the Scottish Borders Chamber of Commerce I made trying to organise some kind of forum for business organisations in the Borders one of my priorities.

This did not start well.  I was told by many that this could not be done including by officials here at Scottish Borders Council.  Well here we are.

I was told that it would be easier if the various business organisations simply merged.  Easier for whom?  I was also told that there were around 50 such organisations as if this was the worst thing in the world.

My response was simple.  Why is this necessarily a bad thing?  Surely we should be celebrating the fact that so many business people in the Borders freely give up some of their spare time to help other businesses.  I was then simply ignored until after the local elections last year.

So what has changed?  One of the main changes is that we have a new administration at Scottish Borders Council.

I would like to place on record my thanks to Councillor Stuart Bell and his officials for not only hosting today’s event but for making a real effort to engage seriously with the business community here in the Borders.

The role of Scottish Borders Council has been crucial in getting so many of us here today.  For one thing, the Council seemed to be the only body that had regular contact with the various Borders business organisations.

When I have thought of a Borders Business forum I have not imagined a body that imposes its thoughts and ideas on all the business organisations in the Borders.  It is not a governing body.  Business organisations, and indeed any business, can play as much of a role as they wish and that they are comfortable with.

The Borders covers a large and diverse area.  That is why we need local business organisations.  We also need special interest business organisations.  We also need business organisations that are part of larger bodies.  We already have these.

What we don’t have is a forum where our business organisations can come together as we are doing today and debate issues such as broadband.

It is for the business organisations to decide if they wish to have such a forum and if they do what it then does.

A Borders business forum might also bring other practical benefits.

We generally do different things.  Although we work well together I am sure we can do better.  I would like to see the contact details for all our business organisations made easily accessible.  The same with all our events.  I would like to see more joint events.  These are just some of the things that a Borders Business Forum might help to bring about.

There are also so many great things going on here in the Borders just now that we need to let more people know about.

The new visitor centre at Abbotsford House, Eyemouth Harbour can now receive cruise ships, our first crematorium is now in operation, a second is planned, the Borders Book Festival, the Border Union Show, the new 3G sports arena, plans are now in place for a purpose-built mountain bike chairlift at Innerleithen, our common ridings, our “Sevens” tournaments, our first palliative care unit, a site has been found for the Bill McLaren museum and of course the start of construction of our railway.   I am sure everyone here today could add to this list.

One last point.  Why am I involved with the Chamber?  To be honest, it was more luck than choice. I could have just as easily joined the FSB or another business organisation here in the Borders or in Edinburgh.  I like a lot of people am as often away from the Borders as here.

The important thing for me is that the business organisation I belong to is willing to help and speak up for businesses in the Borders.  If that is the Chamber, great.  If it is another organisation then that is great too.  My priority is the Borders.

Think of how much stronger we would be if we shared more of our knowledge and resources.

Think how strong our voice could be if we speak as one on the major business issues affecting the Borders.

Thank you

James Aitken
Convener Scottish Borders Chamber of Commerce

16 February 2013

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