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Thank you, Mr Reid. I will ask the minister to acknowledge that we in Dumfries and Galloway face many of the same problems of remote and rural areas as do the Highlands. Although we do not have our own minister, we merit the same level of attention and funding. There is also a growing feeling of marginalisation in the south-west, so I want this Government, which talks so much about social inclusion, to demonstrate some geographic inclusion so that the people of Dumfries and Galloway can be confident that they are on the agenda of the Executive and this Parliament.
In addition to peripherality-which I am assured is a word-and dispersed communities, the two major problems that the region faces are spiralling job losses in the manufacturing sector and the restructuring and adjustment of the agricultural
I commend the Scottish Agricultural College report on agriculture and its future in rural Dumfries and Galloway to both Mr McLeish and Mr Finnie. It is an excellent document but it makes troubling reading as it predicts up to 1,700 job losses in that industry unless positive action is taken to restructure.
On the manufacturing side, the closure of the Nestlé plant in Dumfries with the loss of 99 jobs is the latest in a seemingly endless line of bad-news stories that have made the local papers. We have become used to headlines like "New Year Jobs Blow", which greeted the closure of the UCB polypropylene film plant, and "Double Jobs Blow Hits 180" on the shock closure of a showpiece plant. I will not go on, although I must say that I was intrigued by the headline "Crisis Alert-Dewar to Visit Region".
The job losses that we have experienced tend not to make the national news because the numbers are not headline matters. However, the drip, drip loss of 100 jobs in Dumfries, the loss of 20 this week at Cochran Boilers in Annan and 160 jobs lost at Stelrad in Dalbeattie are equivalent to the loss of many hundreds or even thousands of jobs from our large cities.
The psychological effect is the same. An air of gloom has descended on many communities with the inevitable consequence that people move away. The statistics show that depopulation has begun and it is predicted that it will continue. Who is going? Young people and skilled people are going, leaving behind an aging and economically inactive population. Dumfries and Galloway cannot survive on only the income of retired people. Work is needed to sustain and develop vibrant rural communities.
There are bright spots, though. I commend the Langholm initiative to Mr McLeish and I suggest that he visit there. It is a shining example of how a community and local organisations can work together to stimulate economic development and enhance their environment. I welcome the closer working relationship between Dumfries and Galloway Council and the local enterprise company. Their joint economic strategy document is a starting point, but I believe its development and implementation will only be fulfilled, in this time of unprecedented crisis, with the clout and expertise of the Scottish Executive as a full partner
I want to conclude my remarks with a further plea to the Scottish Executive that it will give a commitment today to support the Dumfries and Galloway European partnership case for rural strand objective 2 support for the years 2000 to 2006. As its lobby document sets out, such funding is needed if the region is to succeed in building on the foundations that were established under the objective 5 programme with the aim of developing a modern, diverse rural economy with an emphasis on employment creation and on knowledge-based and high-value-added activities.
It is always hard to draw attention to a difficult situation without appearing overly negative. Members should be in no doubt that the south-west has a wonderful natural environment, some of the best health and educational facilities in Scotland and, of course, its premier resource, its people. Let us by our actions make this Scottish Parliament the catalyst that will allow the south-west to reach its full economic potential.