Every summer, I make sure I embark on what I like to refer to as my ‘Summer Tour’ where I get out and see as much of my constituency as possible and speak to as many people and businesses as I possibly can. This summer has been no different.
Just last week, I completed a lap of constituency surgeries across the Trossachs area – a spectacular part of the world and perhaps the most rural region that I represent. When speaking to residents, almost always the same issue comes back: broadband – or the lack of it!
Despite broadband, under telecommunications, being a reserved matter to the Westminster Parliament, the Scottish Government has committed additional funding to rolling out a super-fast connection by 2021 – the most ambitious policy of its kind in the UK. However, for many people living in rural communities – like those in the Trossachs – waiting is not an option and community action groups in places such as Balquhidder, Strathfillan or Strathard are working to move mountains in order to deliver reliable and modern broadband connections to their local area.
There are many obstacles in front of these groups and communities but I will continue to lend my support and assistance where I can – the future of developing and sustaining a modern economy in areas such as these is dependent on access to modern communications technology.
Last month, it was revealed that – despite all the noise of a potential recession from opposition parties – Scotland’s economy outperformed the UK average in the first quarter of this financial year. Our GDP per head remains higher than the UK average, we have more registered businesses operating here than ever before, and our employment level is 56,000 above the pre-recession peak in 2008.
Whilst the general picture is a positive one indeed for Scotland’s economic prospects, there are always areas where additional support is needed to tackle new challenges. I am deeply saddened to see the Guyana Garden Centre in Aberfoyle announce its intention to close for the final time next month. There have been indications over a period of time that a major rethink is required in terms of tackling a chronic flooding issue and attracting people to the local Aberfoyle area to spend their money and support local businesses.
Across the entire Stirling area, food, drink and hospitality businesses thrive and prosper from tourism drawn by our unique local historical and natural heritage. However, these businesses can often face seasonal periods of volatility and it is important that we do as much as possible to support these key industries.
The Scottish Government, as part of the new Business Rates review, has protected hospitality businesses from any immediate rise in the rates they pay. I recently highlighted these measures to the UK Chancellor when making the case for further support to our tourism-related industries. In my letter, I asked the Chancellor to reassess the current rate of VAT that hospitality businesses currently pay on trade.
In a consultation last year, 87% of Stirling-based businesses agreed that a reduction in VAT for the hospitality industry would lead to jobs and growth locally. The Cut Tourism VAT campaign has said that a reduction of VAT to just 5% for tourism-related businesses would see £4.6 billion raised for public services, create 121,000 jobs across the entire UK, and boost exports.
As the Scottish Government and Stirling Council are working together with the UK Government to deliver an exciting City Region Deal for the area, building a competitive tax environment is exactly the sort of thinking the Chancellor must commit to ahead of his Autumn Budget this year in order to properly support local Stirling businesses.