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

Abbotsford Meeting Speech

Convener James Aitken’s speech to members at the Chamber’s meeting held at the Abbotsford Visitor Centre on Thursday 17th January 2013

Good evening everyone.

My name is James Aitken and I am the current convener of the Scottish Borders Chamber of Commerce. Firstly a thanks to Jason Dyer, Chief Executive, of the Abbotsford Trust who is our host this evening.  Jason will shortly give us a talk on what is clearly a magnificent venue.   Sean Connaughton, of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, will then tell us more about Chamber benefits.

As someone who grew up very close to here, just across the water in Langlee, and now has a house in Tweedbank, it is great to see this new visitor centre.  I also have a connection with Abbotsford House.

Before I followed a certain Mr Scott into the world of law I was an apprentice electrician.  One of the houses I worked in during the early 1980’s was Abbotsford House.  I loved working here although that probably had more to do with my fascination with Scottish history rather than ancient power and lighting systems.

As a “pail merk” and a follower of past Braw Lads Gatherings I can also confirm that the connection Abbotsford House has with our common riding is just as important as ever.

I wrote a letter for a Southern Reporter a few months ago.  I must admit I was getting sick and tired of the negativity surrounding the Borders that seemed to fill the letters pages.  I mentioned the completion of our venue here tonight in that letter.  I simply wanted to point out that even in these extremely tough times great things are happening here in the Borders.

Some other examples:  Eyemouth Harbour can now receive cruise ships, our first crematorium is now in operation, a second is under construction, 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 on the railway line that should never have taken away in the first place.  Possibly with a station called Tweedbank Abbotsford?


A68 Roadworks – Lauder/Earlston

Following Members’ concerns about the traffic lights and consequential delays on the A68, the Chamber has been looking into the situation by firstly contacting SBC. They have informed us that this is a BEAR Scotland matter. Through emails and Tweets, BEAR Scotland have informed us that they are “looking into the matter”. This was at 1440 on Tuesday 4th December so Members will be kept duly informed.

UPDATE – tweet reply from BEAR Scotland “Lights & barrier are in use in this area of the A68 as a result of a recent landslip. Repairs are being planned”. Will ask for further information to be supplied, 1525 4/12/2012

UPDATE – as at 0850 Wednesday 05/12/2012. “We plan to have signs erected by the end of this week. Investigation and design for the repair is ongoing.” BEAR Scotland.

UPDATE – as at 11th December. Email from BEAR:
“The land slip has occurred over a significant length of the A68 trunk road during a period of exceptional rainfall. Because of the nature of the embankment failure the traffic control system has to remain in place to ensure the safety of users of this section of the A68. The site has been assessed by Geotechnical Specialists to gather the necessary information to enable possible design solutions to be developed and then discussed with Transport Scotland so that suitable funding can be targeted. BEAR Scotland has inspected and tested the existing road drainage system so that suitable repairs can be undertaken. I can advise that one of the repair solutions has been selected and that the design is progressing. At this stage it is not possible to give a definitive timescale for the removal of the temporary traffic management; however it is envisaged that all works will be completed in the spring and that the A68 can return to full lane availability. “

Update 23rd December
Having been promised on 5th December that signs would be erected “by the end of the week” nothing appears to have transpired. A further tweet has been sent to BEAR and Transport Scotland asking for an update and explanation. Their reply will be posted or will be found on twitter @scotborderscc

Update 3rd January from BEAR
“Apologies for the delay in coming back to you. The signs were erected on Monday 31st December”.

Plexus Expansion Welcomed

In response the the news that Plexus are to increase their workforce in Kelso by 57, the Chamber commented, “To see a global company like Plexus having the confidence to expand like this, is in itself, a pointer to perhaps green shoots appearing on the economic horizon. It is especially good for us in the Borders with so many new jobs being created. This news, plus the decision a fortnight ago by Chanel to take over the Barrie’s business in Hawick, indicates that major manufacturing business has confidence in the Borders. Long may this trend continue.”

Full report in http://www.thesouthernreporter.co.uk/news/business/plexus-reveals-recruitment-boost-at-kelso-plant-with-57-new-jobs-1-2608163

Borders Rail


6TH  NOVEMBER, 2012.

Borders Rail Contract SigningThe Campaign for Borders Rail (CBR) and the Scottish Borders Chamber of Commerce wholeheartedly welcome the official signing of the transfer of responsibility for the construction of the Borders Railway from Transport Scotland to Network Rail. Now that the signing is complete Network Rail can officially begin the construction phase of the Borders Railway Project which will re-establish passenger railway services from Edinburgh through Midlothian to Tweedbank in the Scottish Borders for the first time in over 40 years.

CBR Chair Lorne Anton commented, “CBR was launched in 1999 and has played a key role in leading grassroots support for the return of the railway – not least with our 17,200 signature Petition presented to the Scottish Parliaments Petitions Committee in March 2000. Together with the local community we also secured a station in the village of  Stow which was not part of the original official proposal.”

“CBR wishes to put on record its thanks to all Scotlands National and Local Government Agencies, Government Ministers, MPs, MSPs, Councillors, business and trade union organisations, the Association of Community Rail Partnerships, tourist attractions and tourism organisations, members of the public and supporters from across the world who have come together to give the Borders and Midlothian our railway back.”

Scottish Borders Chamber of Commerce Chairman, James Aitken added, “”The signing of today’s contract sees the start of the normalisation of transport links in the Borders.  It is a fantastic day for all of the Borders. The SBCC would like to thank all those people who have campaigned so hard for many years on this issue.  Also the Scottish Government and the majority of the members of the Scottish Parliament.  The SBCC also asks that all of our local politicians get behind this project and join us in campaigning for the line to be extended to Melrose, Hawick and Carlisle.”    

CBR will also continue to campaign for the extension of the re-opening to Hawick and eventually, Carlisle and sees the re-connection of  Hawick to the national rail network as crucial to the towns future growth and prosperity. CBR will also actively support the setting up of a Community Rail Partnership for the Borders Railway and will continue to examine and comment on what is being proposed in the way of infrastructure and facilities for the Borders Railway.

Board Meeting – October

At the Board meeting held on 24th October, the subject of Membership and Membership Benefits was the main topic and it was agreed that a Membership Drive/Initiative should start as soon as possible. Scottish Chamber of Commerce had also agreed to be the headline speakers at a future Network Meeting.

On the subject of future events, it was agreed that the Chamber should open out its web site to incorporate all events notified to us of a relevant business nature. Future SBCC events include the 8th November Network Meeting featuring a talk by Alyn Smith MEP at the Cross Keys Hotel commencing at 7 for 7.30. Scottish Business in the Community had been approached for a December meeting, Scottish Chamber of Commerce for January 2013 and Richard Lochhead MSP in February. A further meeting in March concerning Constitutional Change has also been pencilled in.

Since the last Board meeting, Directors had had meetings with the Sean Connaughton (Scottish Chamber re membership and “affinity”deals), Christine Grahame MSP (Business Surgeries), Scottish Business in the Community (co-operation in membership benefits), Fergus Ewing MSP and Alistair McKinnon Scottish Enterprise South of Scotland Region (liaison between public and private sectors).

Meetings already planned include discussions with Lanarkshire Chamber and Midlothian Chamber as well as co-operational discussions with many other Chambers in Scotland.

Finally, the Converner paid tribute to Alan Dickson who was attending his final meeting of the Board as Chamber Director. Alan has been a long-standing Director who has helped steer the Chamber through challenging times and his wisdom and energy will be missed by the Board.

Jim Mather Network Meeting

“Collaboration” is the Key Word in Business

The Scottish Borders Chamber of Commerce kicked off its programme of network events last week t the Tontine Hotel, Peebles.

Jim Mather, former Scottish Minister for Energy, Enterprise and Tourism in the previous SNP minority Government and now chairman of Gael Limited, spoke on the topic of “How small businesses can endure, grow and become successful in challenging times”.

In an extremely well researched presentation, Mr Mather referred to the works of many notable business mentors such as W. Edward Deming, Dee Hock, Professor Ken Cloke, Steve Johnson and others all of whom came to the conclusion that the West had become too obsessed with competition: an approach that was dangerously incomplete without some element of “Collaboration”.

“Collaboration”, stated Mr Mather, “is a very misunderstood term often being misinterpreted because of wartime references. However, collaboration is ever-present in those businesses that pass the test of time, building up links, ideas and support from inside and outside successful businesses all feeding each other and benefiting as a result”. He went on to explain that competition, especially in the tendering process when more often than not, the cheapest bidder wins, is never the answer. A successful & resilient business model needed to adopt the two-legged walk of increasing competitiveness and collaboration.

Mr Mather went on to review the model that he put into action in Argyll and Bute where many small businesses began working together for the common good and became more customer focussed.  He said that “The only factor that limited to potential of this initiative was the fact that I was wearing a political label at the time”. Mr Mather felt that the Chamber could provide political neutrality and hence be an effective “facilitator” for such a project in the Borders, where its political neutrality could enable the Council, Media and Professional offices play full & positive parts.

In thanking Jim Mather for his presentation, Gordon Innes, proprietor of the Tontine and Borders Chamber Director said that what Mr Mather was proposing was very much one of the aspirations of the Chamber. He felt that a business organisation forum to be arranged in the near future and to be chaired by Cllr. Stuart Bell was probably the place to discuss this further.

This network meeting was sponsored by Scottish and Southern Electricity and Mr Brian McFarlane, Project Director of SSE gave a short presentation on the wind farm projects currently in operation and at the planning stage in South Scotland. Those in attendance were particularly interested in the jobs to be created during the building stages of up to four years and about the on-going job requirements.

Activities Update

Activities take to the fore for the Borders Chamber of Commerce.

The Borders Chamber of Commerce has reiterated its call to industry that the Borders is well and truly “open for business” and as far as the Chamber is concerned, Berwick-on-Tweed forms an integral part.

Board Meeting with Cllr Stuart Bell

At the last Board meeting, Directors were informed by Cllr Stuart Bell, Chairman of the Council’s Economic Development Committee, that the Council had recently announced a new Business Loan Scheme. This scheme is aimed at small businesses who require financial support. Affordable loan support of up to £10,000 can be considered to help businesses grow and support existing jobs. He added that “match funding” loans of up to £50,000 are also available to provide “gap funding” under the South of Scotland Loan Scheme.

One particularly topical subject was also discussed – the revitalisation of Borders high streets and reference was made to the recent report showing a decline in high street footfall. Cllr Bell added that improving retail turnover and performance was one the Council’s key economic objectives. In a recent meeting with community leaders in Hawick and Eyemouth (both recently identified by the Scottish Agricultural College’s “Rural Scotland in Focus 2012” as being amongst the 20 most vulnerable towns in Scotland); Scottish Government Minister Alec Neil, had discussed how Scottish Borders Council and the Scottish Government could to work together to stimulate town regeneration as well as high street revitalisation.

In thanking Cllr Bell for being keen to talk to the Chamber, James Aitken, Convener of the Borders Chamber said, that the close relationship between the Council and the Chamber was beneficial to every business in the Borders and that it was imperative that this dialogue and discussion was maintained.

He added that over the last 12 months the Borders had seen many new developments including the Borders first crematorium, with a second on the way; Eyemouth Harbour which can now receive cruise ships; the 3G sports arena; the Abbotsford House visitor centre; our first palliative care unit; the proposed purpose-built mountain bike chairlift at Innerleithen; the Bill McLaren rugby museum and the return of our railway. Once again, the Chamber reiterated its full support for the new Borders Railway and looked forward to seeing an extension from Tweedbank to Hawick and eventually to Carlisle.

“The Borders,” he added “is definitely open for business!”

Open Meeting with Scottish Government Minister Fergus Ewing MSP

Chamber of Commerce Directors in the Scottish Borders recently facilitated a meeting with Scottish Government Minister Fergus Ewing MSP during his recent visit to the Region. The Chamber has long held the view that it has an important role to play in engaging with its members within the private sector and then engage with public sector stakeholders, (VisitScotland, Scottish Borders Council etc) and support the debate surrounding the future Strategy and plans for Tourism within the region.

Fresh from visits to the Glentress Peel Centre together with the site of the proposed MTB “up-lift” at Innerleithen the Minister for Tourism, Culture & Enterprise met with invited Stakeholders and Tourism & Enterprise businesses from Peebles & The Tweed Valley Tourist Consortia. An honest debate took place surrounding the current strategies for Tourism within the Scottish Borders region.  The debate proposed that we had reached a point and time for Positive Change. There has been much recent activity in the region with the appointment of Paula McDonald, Area Director, VisitScotland together with new Council officials including Stuart Bell who holds the Economic Development portfolio within Scottish Borders Council.

James Aitken, Convener of the Borders Chamber of Commerce said, “The Board feels strongly that achieving our growth ambitions will rely on the industry working together to deliver one common goal with strong leadership at business, local and national level’.

Future engagement / meetings are planned to support the increasing importance of tourism to the Scottish Borders and the best ways of engaging all interested parties and stakeholders.

Border Tourist Board AGM
Board Director Bruce Simpson attended the AGM of the Borders Tourist Board which just happened to be held at the same time as the Chamber’s meeting with Scottish Government Minister Fergus Ewing MSP. “This meeting was not what I expected it to be”, said Mr Simpson, ”I was pleasantly surprised by a full house of about 70 people and an open discussion almost entirely aimed at Borders marketing. It was also pleasing to see that the organisation is changing its name in order to avoid being labelled as a VisitScotland alternative. Through their membership of the Borders Tourism Partnership which also includes VisitScotland and the Borders Chamber, the ideas emanating from the members at this meeting can now be aired more fully – this co-operation and open discussion is good for Borders tourism.”

Mr Simpson hoped that a closer liaison could be developed with the organisation and that all parties involved in tourism in the Borders could “pool” their ideas and speak with one Regional voice – strength through unity being one of the aims of the Borders Chamber of Commerce.

Letter sent to Southern Reporter by SBCC Convener

Published on Friday 7 September 2012 10:58

May I, as gently as possible, remind Mr Cross (letters, August 23) of just some of the many fantastic developments that have been completed, are being planned or under construction in the Borders.

These include our first Borders crematorium, with a second on the way; Eyemouth Harbour can now receive cruise ships; the 3G sports arena; the Abbotsford House visitor centre; our first palliative care unit; the proposed purpose-built mountain bike chairlift at Innerleithen; the Bill McLaren rugby museum; and, yes, the return of our railway.

I, of course, accept that these are incredibly tough times for many in our community, including the business community, but to suggest that we are in a “situation which daily seems to get worse beyond imagination” is simply wrong.

James Aitken

(Convener, Scottish Borders Chamber of Commerce)