We hear a lot about the Northern Powerhouse, but a Borderlands Growth Deal has the potential to be more significant for Cumbria.
The Borderlands Initiative was set up in 2013 by five local authorities on the England/Scotland border after a report from Northumbria University recommended joint working to exploit and develop economic and social links.
Few paid it much attention until Chancellor Philip Hammond revealed in the Autumn Budget that plans are afoot for a “Borderlands Growth Deal”.
This would see funds devolved from the British and Scottish governments to fund transport projects and other schemes to boost the economy of the Borderlands, which is made up of Cumbria and Northumberland in England, and Dumfries and Galloway and The Borders in Scotland.
Rob Johnston, Chief Executive of Cumbria Chamber of Commerce, said: “We were disappointed when negotiations for a devolution deal for Cumbria broke down in 2016. A Borderlands Growth Deal is the next best thing.
“It has the potential to deliver the infrastructure improvements that we’ve been calling for, such as upgrades for the A69, A595 and the Northern Access Route for Kendal. It could be a game changer.”
So what would a Borderlands Growth Deal look like?
It has the potential to deliver the infrastructure improvements that we’ve been calling for.
We’re not privy to the negotiations underway between the Borderlands local authorities, Westminster and Holyrood, but a 128-page report commissioned by the councils in 2016 sheds light on their thinking.
The Borderlands Inclusive Growth Initiative: A Framework for Unlocking our Potential was produced by EKOS, an economic and social research consultancy.
It highlights that inadequate infrastructure is holding back the Borderlands and lists a series of priority projects, including:
- Improvements to the A595 between Carlisle and Sellafield;
- Dualling of the A69 between Carlisle and Hexham;
- Building a Carlisle Southern Relief Road from M6 Junction 42 to the A595 at Newby West;
- Improvements to Carlisle Airport to allow scheduled passenger flights;
- A pan-Borderlands digital improvement scheme to deliver superfast broadband and extend 4G coverage;
- Extending the Edinburgh-Tweedbank Borders Railway to Carlisle;
- Improvements to the Cumbrian Coast railway, doubling single-line sections, raising line speeds, replacing obsolete Victorian signalling and building in resilience to storms and coastal erosion;
- Electrification of the Carlisle-Newcastle line to achieve a 12% reduction in journey times, and reopening Gilsland station.
Failure to address inadequate infrastructure, the report says, will allow the ‘gap’ between the Borderlands and the rest of the UK to grow.
It makes the point that the Borderlands is a homogenous region.
While Cumbria is nominally part of the North West of England, it has far more in common with Dumfries and Galloway and The Borders than it has with heavily urbanised Manchester and Liverpool.
Likewise, Dumfries and Galloway has more in common with Cumbria and Northumberland than it does with Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Challenges shared by the Borderlands local authorities include low productivity, below-average incomes, relatively sluggish employment growth, a low proportion of graduates, and a declining and ageing population.
It makes perfect sense to treat the Borderlands as a region. In reality it is a self-contained economic area with Carlisle as its hub.
Over the last 30 years, the report says, the population of the Borderlands has increased by 46,000. However, this growth has been driven entirely by those aged 65 or over. The number of children declined by 14,300 and the working-age population fell by 14,400.
Tourism is another common denominator, accounting for 10% of employment across the region. The report makes the case for cross-Borderlands initiatives to promote tourism and heritage attractions, such as a Borderlands Visitor Travel Pass for public transport.
It also puts emphasis on creating a supportive business environment to encourage investment and address skills shortages.
Ideas include Simplified Planning Zones and Enterprise Zones – one exists already at Kingmoor Park, Carlisle – and it advocates setting up a ‘developer prospectus’ website and marketing materials to promote available sites and development opportunities across the Borderlands.
Food and drink is identified as a key sector, as is energy with nuclear decommissioning and new build at Sellafield, offshore wind in the Solway, and early stage proposals for development of carbon capture and storage facilities at Chapelcross in Dumfries and Galloway.
The report argues that the England/Scotland border has been a constraint on the development of a functional Borderlands economy.
But by forging closer partnerships, it says, there is an opportunity to leverage greater levels of public and private sector investment.
Rob said: “It makes perfect sense to treat the Borderlands as a region. In reality it is a self-contained economic area with Carlisle as its hub.
“The Borderlands covers a large geographical area, of almost 9,000sq miles, but around half its population is in Cumbria. For that reason alone, Cumbria is well placed to benefit from a Borderlands Growth Deal.”
He added: “The priorities identified in the EKOS report are, by and large, the right ones, and if the Growth Deal that emerges reflects those priorities, it should serve Cumbria well.”
The founding partners in the Borderlands Initiative are Carlisle City Council, Cumbria County Council, Dumfries & Galloway Council, Northumberland County Council and Scottish Borders Council.