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COVID-19: “Each Scottish region, and locality, is faced with a varying set of specific challenges as we provide support to businesses large and small”


Every Thursday evening at 8.00pm, like millions across the country, I step outside my front door in preparation for the now weekly communal act of expressing thanks for our carers.

In these times of social distancing and self-isolation, this coming together as a society is a welcome few moments in weeks which roll from one to another as we advance through lockdown. Alongside the clapping coming from all corners of my neighbourhood, a bagpiper strikes up from a balcony, reminding me of one other feature of where I live – this is Scotland.

In the context of a global pandemic, and where our nightly news is dominated by briefings from Westminster (and Washington), it is easy, perhaps, to forget that the economic
impacts are also a story of nations and regions.

For Scotland, it is easy to see a small nation with a uniform economy. Covid has reminded us that this is far from being the case and each Scottish region, and locality, is faced with a varying set of specific challenges as we in the economic development profession seek to provide support to businesses large and small.

From the layering of the pandemic and a record low oil price in the North-East of Scotland; to the challenges of Tayside soft fruit producers in recruiting teams for the summer harvest; the cancellation, for the first time since they began, of the Edinburgh Festivals; and the halting of major construction projects across the central belt, businesses are being affected in ways we never thought we would see in our professional lifetimes.

In most crises, a short event followed by a rapid response and then on to recovery enables the public, private and third sectors to marshal resources, implement tried and tested business continuity and recovery plans, and get back to business as usual as soon as possible.

As lockdown continues, we now face planning for recovery whilst still very much in response mode, delivering critical support for communities and businesses with an immediate focus on their survival. As with other regions across the UK, smaller businesses’ resilience and cashflow is being tested to its limits as firms continue to have their doors closed. So, as minds turn to recovery, what are some of the key features which will aid us in reframing our strategic and operational plans to renew our local economies?
Firstly, we should expect an uneven restart of the economy, across different regions and nations of the UK, and particularly between sectors. Scottish Ministers published further detail this week of what a plan for coming out of lockdown will look like. This makes clear that whilst all four nations will work together on planning, the solutions and timeframes for action may be very different, led by the goal of restricting the spread of Covid. This week’s pictures of a packed flight to London from Belfast reminds us that this discrepancy is happening now.

Secondly, any bounce-back will be led, initially, by a limited number of sectors. Scotland’s retention of a strong SME manufacturing base has allowed companies to remain agile and turn to providing essential supplies to the national Covid response. With much of the sector having adapted and back working, economic development response now needs to turn to supporting innovation in manufacturing and building sustainable, UK-based supply chains.

At the other end of the spectrum, Scotland’s strong and continued growth in tourism has come to an abrupt halt. With an earlier summer season than other parts of the UK, and major events cancelled or postponed, the need to develop a new focus on the domestic tourism market will be a key challenge for councils and regions.

Thirdly, any difference in approach across the UK nations risks relative disadvantage, for example in the construction sector, where Scottish firms supplying labour and equipment will be less able to fulfil, secure and develop contracts for work across the wider country. The public sector will need to ensure that demand is stimulated through early work on publicly-funded projects and programmes, such as those funded through City Region Deals, and clear the path for new development through clear links between spatial and economic strategies.

Finally, we must not lose sight of the key drivers of economic change which were developed pre-Covid, including commitments to inclusive and sustainable growth. With its strong focus on low carbon and renewables, and commitments to ensuring through education and skills interventions that ‘No One is Left Behind’, a focus on inclusion and climate must be at the core of recovery, and not an afterthought.

Through the IED-led Commission for Economic Renewal, and commissions being led by Scottish Government and mirrored at local level, Scotland’s economic development professionals, along with those in other UK regions along with those in other UK regions can, and will, play its part in the nation’s restart, recovery and, ultimately, renewal.

Gordon Mole is Head of Business and Employability at Fife Council and a Director of the Institute of Economic Development