A decade-long growth plan is focusing increasing attention on East Lothian’s exciting prospects
By Kenn Mann
Access to major intermodal transport connectivity and availability of a well-educated labour market come as standard in UK top-end location investment propositions. To stand out, though, other differentiators are needed.
East Lothian, situated to the east and south of Edinburgh, features both of the aforementioned key requirements but lays additional claim to combining them with a qualitative range of lifestyle and living components of the type now edging up the corporate agenda of final selection criteria.
Proximity to the Scottish capital’s cosmopolitan cultural scene, with its internationally renowned grandeur as a business and leisure visitor destination, is an obvious lever.
As a corollary, Edinburgh’s status as a financial and technology hub gives on-the-doorstep levels of enterprise functionality. Economic complementarity is implicit, in this city region.
East Lothian is content to use the strapline ‘Edinburgh’s Coast and Countryside’; it’s accurate enough. With a proliferation of iconic golf links, including Muirfield, it has long described itself as steward of ‘Scotland’s Golf Coast’. So that’s 22 courses across 30 miles of coastline bathed in the drier, sunnier climate of Scotland’s eastern regions. This landscape lends itself to walking, cycling and water sports, among alternatives for lovers of the outdoors and thrill-seekers alike.
Matched to the expected core deliverables of investment deals, the overall package sets the tone for the business conversation economic development professionals at East Lothian Council, and their partner agencies, seek to initiate.
A ten-year targeted economic strategy, launched four years ago, has brought focus and visibility on the metaphorical and physical maps for this place of work and play.
That decade-long economic blueprint anchors ambitious growth plans. Susan Smith is the council’s Economic Development Team Manager. “The strategy is about underlining our identity. We want to grow our local economy, developing our towns while retaining their intrinsic character,” she insists. “It’s about encouraging, then supporting, business start-up and growth, focusing on key sectors and employability for all,” she insists.
The Office of National Statistics (ONS) puts the county population at a little over 103,000. However, estimates of population growth show a rate of 12% by 2022.
Wide-ranging opportunities will exist. Sustaining and building upon traditional strengths in markets such as golf tourism, staycations and short or longer break hospitality, at all price points, is a strategic aim. Increasing the labour pool demographic across key sectors, locally sourced food and drink being one, is a companion to that.
“Tourism represents around 10% of our business activity,” Smith adds. “It’s vital that we work to increase our bed occupancy rates, not just the numbers of day visitors.
“As Scotland’s leading coastal and leisure destination, with a big emphasis on the local food and drink offer, we need to encourage short breaks.”
At 66%, the number of SMEs is marginally higher than the Scottish average. Yet business resilience is solid; growth will underpin that position.
East Lothian Investments Ltd, a council arms-length funding arm, allows businesses based or located within the council’s boundaries to borrow from a willing source. Local business people are directors. Loans are based on sensible business plans. It works: a bad debt rate of less than 3% is remarkable.
Smith underlines partnership support effort as a chief advantage for intending investors. “Take a technology start-up,” she begins. “There are well-qualified people available in our area. With our partners in organisations like Scottish Enterprise, Skills Development Scotland, and neighbouring and indigenous further and higher education providers and recruitment specialists, we can offer undeniably competitive, tailored packages to suit investor purposes.
“It’s the same picture in the tourism and food and drink sectors, both of which are established and growing in East Lothian. In no small measure the attraction is down to a particular blend of factors – hard business advantages with natural locational qualities.
“As a consequence, attracting the best senior staff from outside East Lothian, for example on a job relocation basis and perhaps involving business-critical posts, becomes a smoother transition thanks to excellent schooling (state and independent), quality housing options that are generally more affordable than in Edinburgh, and our well documented recreational portfolio, of which world-class golf is just one component.
“Locating a business can be as much about the capacity for young professional or family lifestyles as it is about core enterprise prerequisites. With city amenities in easy reach, potential to optimise business cost profiles and our ability to play the coast/countryside card, we feel our elevator pitch has some interesting headlines.”
Edinburgh’s respected higher education community – frequently occupying upper positions in relevant league tables measuring institutional or subject performance – is the geographic equivalent of being across an office corridor. It comes complete with its degree-bearing, employment-seeking scholars and industry research specialisms.
Closer to home, Queen Margaret University (QMU), on the edge of historic Musselburgh, one of East Lothian’s main towns (along with Haddington, Dunbar and North Berwick), enjoys its own valued links with businesses, providing qualified people for in-demand jobs.
QMU’s decision to relocate and build a new multi-million pound out of Edinburgh campus occurred after a lengthy strategic review. Officially opened by The Queen in 2008, the theory of open spaces, a liberating architectural approach to facilities design, plus factors in vehicular access and the potential for greener travel, by train or bicycle, has been vindicated in practice.
Among its range of programme strengths are business, tourism and hospitality and food and drink, neatly echoing those identified pillars of local economic growth.
QMU boasts its own consultancy and research portfolio. Black & Gold cold pressed rapeseed oil, a favourite of several top chefs and able to boast Made in East Lothian credentials, was thoroughly tested by science academics at QMU. The result is a consumer item better able to demonstrate and communicate its health benefits alongside cooking versatility, driving sales success.
Edinburgh International Airport can be reached in about half an hour and little more even at peak times. You circumvent the city’s urban sprawl on a southern by-pass.
European and UK inter-city travel is achievable in short time frames. Scheduled flights to the USA and Middle East bring either direct global connectivity, or via hubs like Heathrow and Schiphol. The fast east coast rail link to London – under four and a half hours from Dunbar – gives the work-while-you travel option.
Road networks? On the county’s western fringe lies the A1. The Edinburgh City By-pass links with the M8 to Glasgow and arterial routes north over the soon to be two main Forth crossings. South-west cross-country A-class roads merge with the M74 and onward to England’s conurbations. For importers and exporters, major containerised sea freight facilities are located at Leith, Edinburgh’s port.
Admittance to the digital economy? By 2017, the Scottish Government’s Digital Scotland initiative will see 95% of premises accessing superfast fibre broadband. East Lothian is meeting that goal. Smith’s contention of an “interesting” elevator pitch appears to have resonance.