Firstly I would like to thank everyone for attending the Annual General Meeting of the Scottish Borders Chamber of Commerce. I am James Aitken and I am the Convener of the Chamber. I will make further introductions as we go along. The order of events this morning is fairly straightforward. I will talk about what has been happening in the Chamber over the past year and also a few other thoughts. You will no doubt be relieved to hear I only intend to speak for 10 minutes or so. I will then see if anyone has any questions. I will then ask Craig Little, the Chamber’s Treasurer, to give a review of our financial situation. I understand that Craig has brought a number of copies of our accounts for anyone who would like a copy. Then I will ask the other Directors if they would like to give a quick update on their respective business sectors. I will then invite any final questions from the floor. We should be finished the formal part of the AGM by around 9:15. Please stay on if you can.
So to the Chamber and the past year. The past year has seen the appointment of almost a completely new Board of Directors including myself as Convener. One of the first things the new Board did was to undertake a complete review of how the Chamber operates. I will come back to this in a minute or so. In addition, and more importantly in my opinion, the Board asked themselves the following question: is there still a need for a Scottish Borders Chamber of Commerce? After lengthy discussions over a number of months, a majority of the Board said yes. There was though a number of caveats. These included that we must be financially viable, we must not be reliant on external funding, we must not be just another talking shop or “boys” club. The Board also agreed to ask itself the same question at the end of this year. I am pleased to report that progress is being made on these issues.
Now to the day to day running of the Chamber. Our finances are now in a much improved state. However, to get to this position the Board, like many other businesses, has had to take some hard decisions in the past year to reduce our overheads. That included the Board having to make a valued employee redundant. In fact our sole employee. This has meant an increased workload for the Directors. The Board also agreed to freeze our membership rates for this and the following year and to offer a discount for members rejoining within a month of the start of our new financial year. As the Chamber no longer receives any external funding, and will not in fact seek further external funding, the Chamber is now almost entirely dependent on membership income. Craig will cover our finances in more detail in a few minutes and will answer any questions you may have.
The Board has also had to deal with a number of problematic historical issues. I am again glad to report that progress has been made on all of these historical issues and in particular the Border Works issue. The Board discussions have also resulted in a series of changes and improvements to the way we operate. This is of course a work in progress and a great deal still needs to be done.
One major change concerned communications and the appointment of a consultant, Harry McGrath, to deal with this vitally important task on our behalf. Harry deals with both internal, our members, and external, the press to give an example, communications. This has included a new website which is regularly updated, regular emails to our members, a much improved twitter presence and more press releases. The feedback we have received to date on these changes has been very positive.
Other matters which we are still working on include membership, appointment of new Directors and events. On membership we are to begin a membership drive in August.
As for Directors, a number of new Directors have already been appointed. This is obviously an ongoing process. I also intend to create an association of former Directors of the Chamber. The advantages to the Chamber of keeping in touch with former Directors are obvious.
On events Jim Mather, former Scottish Government Enterprise, Energy and Tourism Minister, and Alyn Smyth a Scottish Member of the European Parliament who has a particular interest in agricultural matters, have agreed to speak at events to be held in October and November respectively. A third winter event involving Craig Little will be announced shortly. We are also considering holding a networking event every 2 months or so. This is something we are going to ask our members for their views on in the next week or so.
The review that the Board has undertaken would not be of much use if we only look at internal Chamber matters. A great deal of time has been spent considering our relationship with various bodies such as the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, neighbouring Chambers and other local business organisations, Scottish Borders Council and our local politicians.
Can I take this opportunity to thank Ged Cowans for his work with the Scottish Chambers on behalf of the Board. Shortly after becoming Convener, Ged and I held a number of meetings with our neighbouring Chambers in the Lothians. These Chambers were considering a merger and asked us if we also wanted to become part of a larger Chamber. One of the reasons why the Board unanimously rejected a merger was the amount of time taking up discussing the “City regions” policy. I made the position of our Chamber clear. Of course we want to work closely with our neighbouring Chambers, however, although we agree that Edinburgh is important to the Borders our links with Dumfries and Galloway and Northumberland are just as important to us. The Board’s position on this is straightforward. The Borders needs a business organisation or even organisations whose priority is to represent the interests of the Borders business community.
Now to Scottish Borders Council and in particular its economic development department. To be clear I have not been impressed and I have made this clear to those I have dealt with. The Chamber does not see its role to simply provide a token representative from the business community to the latest talking shop being mooted or document to sign in front of the press. That said, it is only a few weeks since the local elections were held. It was clear from reading the various manifestos that each party and many of those standing as independents, see the economy as a priority. That as far as we are concerned means a fresh start. I have already had a very constructive telephone conversation with Stuart Bell, the councillor now in charge of economic development. I am meeting Stuart again in the next week or so and he has agreed to come and speak at our August Board meeting.
I have also made it clear to Stuart that the Chamber will continue to campaign for a forum for all business organisations in the Borders. You may be surprised to know that there are almost 50 such organisations in the Borders. Instead of wasting time and effort trying to get these bodies to merge let’s try a different approach. Let’s acknowledge and celebrate the fact that so many people are willing to try and help business flourish in the Borders. I will continue to press on this. Every politician I have met or spoken to is in favour of the idea of this forum.
That brings me nicely on to our meetings with our local politicians. So far we have met or spoken to Michael Moore, Chic Brodie, John Lamont, Christine Grahame and a number of councillors including David Parker. Other meetings are planned. One interesting idea that arose from these meetings was the idea of MSPs holding surgeries specifically for businesses. Another was arranging a meeting of all the South of Scotland Chambers.
A couple of final points. Let’s not forget that there are many great things going on in the Borders just now. Eyemouth Harbour can now receive cruise ships, our first crematorium is now in operation, a second is almost complete, the Borders Book Festival, the Border Union Show, the new 3G Arena in Gala, mountain biking at Glentress, our common ridings. I could go on and on. Then there is the return of our railway that should never have been taken away in the first place. This is a fantastic opportunity for the business community in the Borders. Let’s ensure that we fully realise its potential. That includes making sure that Twedbank is not the final stop on this line.
I would also like to take this opportunity to thank my fellow Directors, both past and present, for their continued support and all their hard work over the past year. Our Directors do not even claim expenses. In particular I would like to thank Fiona Drane, my predecessor as Convener, and Sally Scott-Aiton our former employee, for all the time and effort they put in to the Chamber. I would also like to thank Gordon and Kate for accommodating us today. Lastly, and by no means least, I would like to thank our members for their continued support.