Good afternoon everyone.
Welcome to the 2013 AGM of the Scottish Borders Chamber of Commerce.
Firstly, by way of introduction to those who do not know me, my name is James Aitken and I am the Convener of the Chamber. I will make further introductions as we go along.
Before I begin do we have any apologies?
The order of events is fairly straightforward. I will firstly seek approval of the minute of last year’s AGM.
I will then outline some of what has been happening in the Chamber over the past year. You will no doubt be relieved to hear I only intend to speak for 20 minutes or so.
I will then ask Craig Little, the Chamber’s Treasurer, to give a review of our finances. I understand that Craig has brought a number of copies of our accounts for anyone who would like a copy. Craig will then answer any questions you have.
Then I will ask the other directors and in particular our new Convener and vice- Convener if they would also like to say a few words.
I will then invite questions from the floor.
We should be finished the formal part of the AGM by around 1pm. I hope that many of you will be able to stay for the buffet lunch.
Firstly to the minute of last year’s AGM. Does everyone have a copy with them or has seen a copy of the minute? Are there any questions? Do we have a proposer and a seconder? Thank you.
The location for my final speech on behalf of the Chamber is an apt one. I grew up in Langlee which overlooks the College and University campus. My rugby club is just a few yards from here.
I also know from personal experience how important the College is to the Borders and the wider business community. I left school before my 16th birthday to start an electrical apprenticeship. I attended the old Borders College on the Melrose Road to study for my City and Guilds. When it finally became clear how poor an electrician I was, and that I wanted to go to university, a number of people at the College helped me when I was teaching myself the Highers I needed to get into University.
With this in mind, this is also a good opportunity to introduce Susan Rennie, Employer Engagement coordinator at Borders College.
So to the Chamber and the past year.
“As the leading business membership organisation in the Scottish Borders the Scottish Borders Chamber of Commerce is committed to representing the interests of the business community in the Scottish Borders.” I am sure that many of you will have seen this phrase used in our press releases and in other Chamber publications and speeches. This statement is what the Chamber should be judged against.
If one phrase sums up the position of the Chamber this year, as opposed to last year, it is “improving but still lots more to do”. Our financial position is much healthier, our membership continues to grow and what the Chamber is saying and doing is regularly covered in the press.
This has a great deal to do with the work done by Bruce Simpson, Andrew Collier and Alan King. Bruce took over our communications role from Harry McGrath just over a year ago, Andrew has dealt with the press on our behalf and Alan King deals with membership. These are paid positions and done on a month to month freelance basis.
The work done on these fronts has directly contributed to our growing membership which has meant an improved financial position.
Each role is crucial and complimentary. It may seem obvious but we actually need to meet with our members and listen to what they are saying. That is something we have simply not done enough of in the past and still need to improve further on. That is one of the main reasons we created Alan’s role.
Alan, Bruce and Gordon Innes are also working very hard on updating our “member benefits” package just now.
Then there is the amount of positive and regular publicity generated for the Chamber by Andrew and Bruce. Barely a week has gone by during the last year without the Chamber being mentioned in our local press. A number of members have given this as their main reason for joining or re-joining when they have met with Alan. I and a number of other directors have also given a number of TV interviews. This has given the Chamber a much higher profile than in past years.
I would also like to thank Andrew and Bruce for all the work they did concerning the Ofcom consultation. It clearly had an impact. One reason for its impact was that it was part of a wider campaign. I would like to take this opportunity to thank David Parker, leader of Scottish Borders Council and the Dumfries and Galloway Chamber for their help with this campaign.
It is likely we will soon see improved local news coverage and the showing of a number of programmes from STV. It is not good for our businesses that the rest of Scotland do not see or hear enough about the great things that happen here in the Borders. It is also ridiculous that the South of Scotland does not receive programmes such as STV Rugby, Scotland Tonight and the Young Scot Awards. We could not even watch one of our local MPs debate with the deputy First Minster recently. The response that you can view Scotland Tonight and other programmes online or on the “STV Player” is simply patronising.
One thing that has become obvious to me over the last two years is that dealing with the press and generating publicity for the Chamber is a job for a professional. That of course has a cost implication and must be kept under review. There are though huge benefits to the Chamber both in terms of increasing our membership and how we lobby our elected representatives and various other agencies and quangos.
Social media is also something that the Chamber is embracing. Thanks in particular to Bruce. Our new improved website is also just about to be launched.
Now to events. This is something that the board keeps under review. We are keen to do more joint events with other local business organisations and that is something the board is working on just now. Our recent joint lunch with the FSB went very well. We are also looking at possible joint initiatives with other business organisations such as the Exporters Club. The benefits of this approach are obvious.
The Chamber has also held a number of very successful events this year. A huge improvement on the previous year. Bruce is already promoting our winter events programme. One thing we have taken on board is that our members would also appreciate more of a chance to meet other members in a more relaxed setting. “Informal networking on the last Friday of the month” now forms part of the events programme. Again, as with our media coverage, our events play an important role in our ability to lobby our elected representatives.
Now to our finances. Craig will outline this in more detail in a few minutes but we are in a much stronger position than we were a couple of years ago. The Chamber also does not receive any public money. A situation I personally hope continues. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Craig for all the work he has done over the past two years regarding our finances. As already mentioned, the work done by Bruce, Andrew and Alan does have a cost implication and must be kept under review but for the moment appears to be working well.
Now to the lobbying of our elected representatives which I have mentioned a couple of times already. This is one of the primary tasks of the Chamber and has been one of the Chamber’s priorities over the last two years. We are very lucky in the Borders that three of our elected representatives hold ministerial positions. The Chamber has spent a great deal of time putting forward our views on an extremely wide range of topics to our local councillors, MSPs, MPs and MEPs. That has included the importance of the partial return of our railway, business rates, the Ofcom consultation, the need for an abattoir in the Borders, the upgrading of the A1 and the urgency of improving other main roads, arguing for windfarm development where appropriate, various tourism issues, the strange workings of the so called ‘meat levy’, asking politicians to hold “business surgeries”, various banking issues and the importance of urgently improving our broadband and mobile phone services.
Our politicians want to engage with us. Let’s not disappoint them.
It was also great to see the Scottish cabinet visit us recently. It was also great to see the huge amount of positive coverage it gained for the Borders throughout Scotland notwithstanding the lateness of the invitations.
I am also delighted that our relationship with Scottish Borders Council has improved markedly and in particular I would like to thank Councillor Stuart Bell for our participation on the Council’s Economic Development Group and to Samantha Smith for all her help, support and advice in relation to the Scottish Borders Business Forum. More on that initiative in a minute. The Chamber was also involved in the discussions surrounding Scottish Borders Council’s “Scottish Borders Loan Fund”. This is the kind of initiative the Chamber welcomes.
The Chamber not only has to engage with our politicians but a number of agencies and quangos. I have often been asked what I think about bodies such as Visit Scotland and Scottish Enterprise. My view is fairly straightforward. I do not automatically believe that the Borders needs its own organisation for every sector, agency or quango or that the way we did things in the past was automatically better. That said, organisations such as these – and this Chamber as well – must act transparently and make a huge effort to meet and talk to their respective stakeholders. It does no-one, least of all business in the Borders, any favours to see yet another war of words between different groups and factions when it is likely that regular and transparent communication from all sides would solve many of the perceived issues.
As for our relationship with Scottish Chambers I must admit to being in two minds about this. That though is a matter for my successor and the board. I would though like to thank Ged Cowans, our vice-Convener, who is also standing down for all the work he has done representing our Chamber at numerous Scottish Chamber events.
On a personal note I am delighted that my idea of bringing the various business organisations together to discuss and debate the bigger issues affecting our businesses here in the Borders has been successful. The new body is to be called the Scottish Borders Business Forum and its first event deals with a number of local transport issues and is being held on the 14th of September. That is a Saturday morning and is at Scottish Borders Council HQ starting at 9am. It should last about two hours. The meeting will have speakers from Transport Scotland, Scottish Borders Council, Network Rail and the Road Haulage Association.
I was also pleased that the Chamber agreed to donate the sum of £2,000 to this project. The only business organisation so far to make such a contribution. That will be used to make available online a list of all the business organisations in the Borders along with their contact details and also what events they have planned. This is not rocket science and is long overdue.
As for Directors, a number of new Directors have recently been appointed: Raymond Kerr, Nick Green and Paul Heyhoe. Four directors resigned during the year: Alan Dickson, Maggie Stanfield, Andrew Collier and Chad Dawtry. Thanks to all of them for all they have done for the Chamber.
The membership of the board is obviously an ongoing process and the Chamber is always looking to hear from local business people who would like to get involved. One thing I have not had as much success on as I would have hoped is the make-up of the board. It is still male dominated. That simply has to change and it is something that the board is looking at again.
The Chamber is also creating an association of former Directors of the Chamber. The advantages to the Chamber of making use of the knowledge and experience of our former Directors are obvious.
A few final thoughts. There are a huge number of great things going on here in the Borders.
Eyemouth Harbour can now receive cruise ships, our first crematorium is now in operation, 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 and festivals, our “Sevens” tournaments, our first palliative care unit and a site has been found for the Bill McLaren museum. Let’s also not forget the newly refurbished Abbotsford House. I am sure everyone here today could add many others to this list.
One reason I mentioned these things again concerns a letter I had published in the Southern Reporter a few months ago which received a great deal of comment. I must admit I was getting sick and tired of the negativity surrounding the Borders that seem to dominate the letters pages of our local papers. I simply wanted to point out some of the great things happening here in the Borders.
I also mentioned the negativity towards the return of the railway, which has been disgraceful, and I hope at last is at an end. It gave a great deal of ammunition to those in other parts of Scotland who wanted the money spent on their patch. We were accused of being divided and insular. With this in mind, I would again ask those local politicians who even now seem reluctant to support the project to put the Borders first and get behind the campaign to take the railway to Melrose, Hawick and hopefully Carlisle. This is a fantastic opportunity for the business community in the Borders and something the Chamber fully supports.
One of the reasons we lost our railway is that we were divided. Let’s never let that happen again. Hopefully the Scottish Borders Business Forum will give us the single business voice that we have not had up till now.
It is though not just about the railway. The quality of our communication infrastructure is absolutely vital if business in the Borders is to remain competitive let alone expand. The main roads that cross the Borders are simply not good enough. This is a matter mainly for the Scottish Government and BEAR Scotland but also for Scottish Borders Council. Regarding BEAR Scotland. The amount of time it took them to resolve the landslip problem on the A68 between Earlston and Lauder was simply not good enough. When we contacted them about this it was difficult to even persuade them to put signs up saying what the problem was. When we contacted Scottish Borders Council to try and put pressure on BEAR Scotland about this their response was pretty much, “nothing to do with us”. If our politicians and organisations such as BEAR Scotland do not understand the importance of roads such as the A68 to business here in the Borders this will make it much more difficult to retain or even entice more businesses to the Borders. It is that simple.
So what do we want? Of course we want to see the A1 dualled all the way to the Border. We know that the other main roads into and out of the Borders are not going to be dualled. That is why we are arguing for two or three more passing lanes on the A7 and A68 as a matter of urgency. The Chamber will also be arguing very strongly for much improved broadband and mobile phone services for the Borders.
A few final words.
I am pleased to report that the Chamber remains in very good hands. That brings me nicely to Jack Clark and Bruce Simpson. Jack Clark is my successor as Convener and Bruce Simpson succeeds Ged Cowans as vice-Convener. Both Jack and Bruce have done a power of work for the Chamber over the last few years. We will hear from both of them in a few minutes.
I would like to thank my fellow directors, both past and present, for all their support over the last two years. Our board of directors are unpaid unless they also take on one of our paid roles and rarely even claim expenses. A great deal of the work they do goes unreported.
Lastly, and by no means least, I would like to thank our members for their continued support of the Chamber.
I will finish where I began. “As the leading business membership organisation in the Scottish Borders the Scottish Borders Chamber of Commerce is committed to representing the interests of the business community in the Scottish Borders.”
It has been an absolute pleasure and honour to represent the Scottish Borders Chamber of Commerce for the last two years. Thank you.