Scottish and English councils unite to drive ‘transformational’ digital agenda in cross-border initiative

An ambitious cross-border drive to improve digital connectivity and skills will form a ‘significant’ part of a multi-million pound bid to boost the rural economies of southern Scotland and northern England.

In what is described as a ‘unique partnership’, Dumfries & Galloway and Scottish Borders councils have joined with Carlisle City Council, Cumbria County Council and Northumberland County Council to work on plans to boost economic growth and competiveness across the 9,000-square mile ‘Borderlands’ region.

The local authorities are preparing to submit a detailed plan, similar to those of the City-Region Deals, to the UK and Scottish Governments later this month; the ‘Borderlands Inclusive Growth Deal’ is designed to improve rural productivity, a key focus of which will be a programme of investment into ‘Digital Borderlands’.

According to the latest communiqué from the group, ‘Digital Borderlands’ is a “transformational digital infrastructure project” which will deliver “future-proofed connectivity improvements”, which will “ensure all properties in the area have access to full fibre connectivity, complemented with 4G and 5G mobile connectivity.”

The ‘progress update’ states: “The Borderlands represents a challenging market location and we recognise our ambition must be pursued progressively. Our investment objectives are three-fold:

1. Borderlands to catch up and match UK levels of connectivity.

2. Equitable coverage across the Borderlands, with no place left far behind.

3. Deliver the connectivity to enhance business productivity and to allow Borderlands to secure and retain globally excellent digital.”

Since being referenced in the UK Government’s budget statement (November 2017), the proposal has gained significant momentum. The outcomes of a Borderlands conference hosted in Dumfries in June – involving David Mundell, Secretary of State for Scotland and Keith Brown, Deputy Leader of the SNP –  have informed the development of the Borderlands Inclusive Growth Deal proposal.

The Strategic Outline Business Cases – the first stage in developing the Borderlands Inclusive Deal – will be submitted to the UK and Scottish governments by the end of September 2018.

A Borderlands Partnership spokesperson said: “Since the Borderlands Conference in June 2018 we have been working with partners to refine the ideas and proposals, taking on board partners’ comments and using evidence to help shape our business cases. We have worked with civil servants from both UK and Scottish Governments and other partners to co-develop our business cases and the overall Borderlands Inclusive Growth Deal proposal.

“Each of the local authority partners is considering the proposal over the coming weeks and we are on target to submit our Deal proposal to the UK and Scottish Governments by the end of September.”

The Borderlands Inclusive Growth Deal proposal comprises four place-based projects and six programmes, that will deliver benefit across the wider Borderlands geography as well as highlighting areas where the Borderlands partners are seeking to work jointly with the UK and Scottish Governments linked to strategic transport schemes and land and marine management.

To secure the support of both governments the proposals must be strategic in their approach and transformational in their economic impact.

Key programmes that will deliver benefit across the wider Borderlands are: Borderlands Energy Investment Company, Digital Borderlands, Quality of Place, Destination Borderlands, Business Infrastructure Programme and Knowledge Exchange Network and feasibility for The Borders Railway; as well as four specific place-based projects: Carlisle Station Gateway, Chapelcross, Berwick Theatre and Conference Centre and the Mountain Bike (MTB) Innovation Centre in the Scottish Borders.

The final amount included within the Deal is not yet known and will be subject to further negotiation. Assuming a successful negotiation, it is expected there will be a funding announcement in the Budget in November 2018.