Dumfries City Status

– in the Scottish Parliament on 22nd December 2021.

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Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S6M-02397, in the name of Emma Harper, on the potential for Dumfries to achieve city status. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament welcomes the bid from Dumfries and Galloway Council for Dumfries to be recognised as Scotland’s eighth city, as part of the Queen Elizabeth II Platinum Jubilee in 2022; understands that, on 27 November 2020, Dumfries and Galloway Council officially launched its campaign to see the town secure city status in 2022; believes that Dumfries, known nationally as Queen of the South, could benefit socially, financially and culturally if successful; understands that when other towns, such as Perth, Stirling and Inverness, received city status they went from strength to strength, with greater job creation, increased inward migration, higher visitor numbers, increased investment and improved transport infrastructure connectivity to other cities; believes that there is potential for Dumfries’ city status to benefit the entire Dumfries and Galloway region through promotion of what it sees as the region’s world class facilities, such as its mountain biking at the various 7Stanes sites, its world-recognised Galloway dark skies park, its world-leading food and drink sector, including its local breweries and whisky, gin and rum distilleries, as well as through its historical and cultural ties to Burns, Bruce and Barry; commends the work of all partners involved in taking the bid forward including Dumfries and Galloway Council, Mark Jardine and the Dumfries People’s Project, the Lord Lieutenant of Dumfries, Fiona Armstrong, and local people for their constructive involvement from early 2021; supports all efforts to secure city status for Dumfries, which due to its geographical location could be Scotland’s “first city”, and believes that it would improve investment to the town, and region as a whole, and put Dumfries on the international map as one of Scotland’s cities.

Photo of Emma Harper Emma Harper Scottish National Party

This is the final members’ business debate this year. I hope that we can end the term on a positive, consensual note while doing something that I greatly enjoy: shining a big muckle light on the south-west of Scotland and my hame toon, Dumfries. I thank those members who signed my motion, which enabled the debate to go ahead today.

Presiding Officer, 2022 presents an exciting opportunity, as part of Her Majesty’s platinum jubilee, for toons across the United Kingdom to receive city status. Her Majesty appoints new cities. When I picked up this opportunity with Mark Jardine and the Dumfries People’s Project in June this year, I brought together stakeholders for an initial meeting. They included local elected members, council officials, community councils and organisations, community leaders, the Lord Lieutenant and Deputy Lieutenants of Dumfries, and many others.

From the meeting came the realisation that there existed many preconceptions about what makes a town qualify to be a city. So, before I extol the virtues of Dumfries and oor wider region, I want to do some myth busting. Questions have been asked about the first myth: “Don’t you need to have a cathedral?” The answer is no—Willie Coffey is laughing, because he asked me the same question 10 minutes ago. That is not a requirement for a town to be a city, although we do have an amazing red sandstone church on the Crichton campus, and it is an awfie braw place tae visit.

The second myth is that Dumfries isnae big enough. The answer to that is that there is no population requirement for city status award. Dumfries has a population of 48,229, which is mair than 16 of the cities that already have city status, including Stirling and Perth. Other issues have been raised, such as, “Ye cannae be a city acause there are too many seagulls and too many empty shops.” Sadly, all cities are tackling the same issues of empty shops and vacant, abandoned and derelict buildings. Those matters can be addressed if we aspire to do that, and they are being addressed.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

I just want to put on record that I spent part of my summer holidays in Dumfries and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

It felt like a city to me, so good luck in your endeavours.

Photo of Emma Harper Emma Harper Scottish National Party

I thank Bob Doris for that intervention. As he spent part of his summer in Dumfries, I would encourage all members to do that, because it is a braw, bonnie place.

We have had the issue raised of our empty shops and our vacant, abandoned and derelict buildings. However, having an aspiration to attract inward investment and inward migration to improve the town—as happened in Perth, Stirling and Inverness when they became cities—will help to tackle many of the issues that I have highlighted. Just making the city bid application has led to conversations about what needs to be done to address the issues that I have highlighted. Even some positive publicity helps.

I will turn to why Dumfries—the toon I am proud to live in, which has cultural, social, innovative and environmental attributes—is worthy of city status. Dumfries is the hame of Robert Burns. It is the birthplace of Peter Pan and the place that led Robert the Bruce to become King of Scotland. Dumfriesshire is also the hame of the savings bank founder Henry Duncan; the father of modern physics, James Clerk Maxwell; the civil engineer Thomas Telford; the first bicycle, which was invented by Kirkpatrick Macmillan; the father of the American navy, John Paul Jones; the Galloway car, which was made for women by women at Tongland and Locharbriggs; the artists Jessie Marion King and Edward Hornel; the musician Ray Wilson of Genesis fame; and the actors Sam Heughan—a lot of the lassies will know him—and John Laurie from the cult classic film “The Wicker Man”. Nor can we ever forget local Dumfries lad Calvin Harris.

Dumfries has a long history and some great stories and characters. We even have oor ain ancient breed of kye, the world famous Belted Galloway.

Photo of Oliver Mundell Oliver Mundell Conservative

Emma Harper has listed lots of wonderful people from Dumfriesshire, but none of them needed city status to succeed. What is it about Dumfries being a city that she feels is so important and so lacking at the moment?

Photo of Emma Harper Emma Harper Scottish National Party

I thank Mr Mundell for that intervention, but I am coming to that. It is about aspiration.

We boast a vibrant cultural scene, with the Big Burns Supper; the guid nychburris festival; the oldest working theatre in Scotland, the Theatre Royal; and many arts, music and book festivals. Dumfries and Galloway has the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization biosphere and the world-recognised dark skies park in the Galloway forest. Hopefully, it will also be the hame of Scotland’s next national park.

All of D and G is an amazing outdoor greenspace adventure park. It is home to world-class facilities such as the 7stanes mountain bike trails, the otter pools—

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I can give you some of the time back, Ms Harper.

Photo of Alasdair Allan Alasdair Allan Scottish National Party

I am compelled to ask the member this question after that last intervention. Has she encountered any other opposition within Dumfries to the idea of city status, or is it just coming from over there, on the Conservative benches?

Photo of Emma Harper Emma Harper Scottish National Party

It is jist comin fae ower there. A few folk have been sceptical, and I have invited all the sceptics to discuss the matter. My door is open to anybody who wants to have a conversation about what they think the issues might be and why they might oppose the move.

We have opportunities with our otter pools, the 7stanes, our miles of bonnie rivers, our lochs and the Solway coast. If Bob Doris comes back to Dumfries and Galloway, he will find that it is an outdoor rural adventure. Dumfries, as the first rural city in Scotland, will have an amazing opportunity to pursue a sustainable and green economic recovery from the pandemic.

Our world-leading food and drink sector, including local breweries and gin, whisky and rum distilleries, provides first-class visitor destinations and would hugely benefit from Dumfries becoming a city. Dumfries also has worldwide importance in innovation and medical history, as the first-ever ether anaesthetic in Europe was delivered in 1846 by doctors Scott and McLauchlan at Dumfries infirmary. As a toon, we satisfy the cultural, social, environmental and innovation criteria for recognition as Scotland’s eighth city.

The Scottish Government publication “Scotland’s Agenda for Cities”, which was revised in 2016, states that we want

“A Scotland where our cities and their regions power Scotland’s economy for the benefit of all.”

That was published before the realities of the Brexit harms were known and before the Covid pandemic. I am keen to hear from the minister what is next for the vision for cities and whether it is being revised to show how Scotland’s cities can help to power economic recovery for our regions, bearing in mind that we will have one new city in Scotland by March 2022.

For all those reasons and to aid with post-pandemic economic recovery, Mark Jardine of the Dumfries People’s Project submitted the bid with complete support from Dumfries and Galloway Council, led by Provost Tracey Little. The bid is also supported by local charities, businesses, schools, young people, community groups and organisations such as Dumfries and Galloway Housing Partnership.

Geographically, Dumfries would be the first city in Scotland for those heading north and the only city in the South Scotland region. If it was awarded city status, that could increase tourism, attract business and bolster investment into the entire region. Dumfries would truly be the queen of the south.

One benefit of city status is good transport links with other cities and easy access to the varied beauty of rural Scotland. We know that many aspects of transport infrastructure across South Scotland, such as bus and train links, the A75 and the A77, need improved. City status will bring greater emphasis on those issues and more attention to the need for roads investment. That will be achieved only through wider attention to our whole region.

When Perth, Stirling and Inverness received city status, they went from strength to strength, with greater job creation, increased inward migration, increased visitor numbers and improved transport infrastructure to connect them with other Scottish cities. I want that benefit for Dumfries and oor wider region. I ask the Scottish Government to do all that it can to help with that aim, so that Dumfries can be the newest Scottish city and the queen of the south. I look forward to hearing colleagues’ contributions.

Photo of Oliver Mundell Oliver Mundell Conservative

It probably does not need to be stated, but I am a committed monarchist and, God willing, I wish to see Her Majesty reign over the United Kingdom for many years to come. After what is set to be another dark winter, the platinum jubilee celebrations offer a ray of light at the end of the tunnel and will, I hope, be an opportunity for all our communities to once again come together and rejoice in all that is good about our country. I say that because I do not want anything that follows to be seen as disrespectful to the royal family, who have been such great supporters of causes across Dumfriesshire. Nor would I wish anything that I say to reflect negatively on the significant efforts of Mark Jardine, who, through the People’s Project, has done so much for the town of Dumfries.

However, in my view, none of the above is a good enough reason to squander the main selling point of Dumfries, as a market town and the hub of our rural community. We cannot and should not simply invent cities just to tick boxes. I also question why, in a large rural region, Dumfries was the automatic candidate. We have already heard that size of population is not a factor, so why should the candidate not be the royal city of Sanquhar? Langholm, the muckle toon, could have become the muckle city.

Photo of Emma Harper Emma Harper Scottish National Party

Man, I think that you should take a deep breath while I make my intervention. We are not talking about a massive concrete metropolis; we are talking about an aspiration for the biggest toon in the south, which can then spill out into the wider region. Do you not have an aspiration for the south of Scotland to have one city?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Please speak through the chair, Ms Harper.

Photo of Oliver Mundell Oliver Mundell Conservative

I have more aspiration for Dumfries than the Scottish National Party does. The SNP has failed Dumfries, as I will come on to later in my speech.

According to a man who still bides in Dumfries, the true meaning of life is

“no in makin muckle, mair”.

Alternatively, we could have had the city of Newton Wamphray or even Gretna Green. That sounds like a flippant point, but I strongly object to the suggestion that somewhere needs to be a city to be successful or that people need to live in a city to succeed.

In this panto season, instead of peddling Dick Whittington-esque myths that only the city streets are lined with gold, and not with rats and rubbish, as we see in Scotland’s largest city, we should, instead—this is where I agree with Emma Harper—be confident in proudly making the case for Dumfries being unique: its sense of community; guid neighbours; being a gateway to much of our rural region; the good work-life balance; the history and culture; and our connection to Burns, Barrie and Bruce, to name but a few.

When the idea was first floated, many people in the town believed that it was an early April fools’ day joke. Others came to the conclusion that the only reason that politicians would be supporting it was that politicians in cities get paid more.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

I note from the motion that the Lord Lieutenant of Dumfries supports the bid. Do you disagree with her?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Please speak through the chair, Ms Grahame.

Photo of Oliver Mundell Oliver Mundell Conservative

I would not seek to compromise her role. Dumfries and Galloway Council, which is made up of different political parties, has come to a position, so I would find it odd if she were not duty bound.

That does not mean that everyone supports the bid—far from it. Many people believe that the only reason that it is being taken forward is to distract from all the other things that have not been taken forward. I say to Christine Grahame that I, as an elected representative, am not in the business of backing unpopular ideas. That is why I also oppose border posts and plastic currency to replace the pound.

I do not want to sound too much like Scrooge—or more than I have done already—and dismiss all Emma Harper’s best ideas before Christmas. In all seriousness, though, if we want to restore and increase pride in Dumfries and to keep future generations of Doonhamers at hame, we need to focus on what will make a difference—for example, dualling the A75, ditching the £25 million Whitesands bund and depedestrianising at least part of High Street.

I will respect the outcome of the competition process, but I politely ask those who are assisting Her Majesty in identifying a winner to look for a candidate for which there is widespread or unanimous support, not one on which, at best, opinion is divided.

Photo of Colin Smyth Colin Smyth Labour

I thank Emma Harper for lodging her motion. It is nice to hear someone from the Cleyhole backing us Doonhamers—I apologise to those in the official report who, not for the first time, will be wondering what I am talking about.

Dumfries is my home—it is where I was born, where I have always lived and where I am bringing up my family. Frankly, I would not have it any other way. It is a town with a proud and rich history, which includes, as we have heard, the three Bs.

Burns, our national bard, had his last family home in Dumfries, where he wrote many of his finest works, including “Auld Lang Syne”. He frequented a few of the same howfs as I do, such as the Globe Inn, as well as Scotland’s oldest working theatre, the Dumfries theatre royal. Dumfries is where he was ultimately laid to rest, in St Michael’s kirk cemetery. We also have Bruce, whose slaying of the Red Comyn in Dumfries’s Greyfriars kirk led to him claiming the crown as king of Scots. Finally, we have Barrie, the author who studied at Dumfries academy, where my kids will go in a few years, and who was inspired to write “Peter Pan” in the magical Neverland garden of Moat Brae in Dumfries, which is now home to the national centre for children’s literature and storytelling.

Those are examples of how our town’s proud past is cultivating a positive future. Many other examples exist, such as, on the edge of town, the jewel-in-the-crown 85-acre Crichton estate—originally Europe’s biggest psychiatric hospital—which is now home to the south’s largest conference and events venue, a major business park and a vibrant college and university campus with more than 6,000 students.

It is little wonder that the Royal Burgh of Dumfries is known as the “Queen of the South”. That, of course, is also the name of our local football team, which has a proud past too. As a season ticket holder, I hope that we will have an even more positive future soon.

Photo of Colin Smyth Colin Smyth Labour

I will take an intervention on that point, yes.

Photo of Emma Harper Emma Harper Scottish National Party

I thank Colin Smyth for taking my intervention, given the time constraints—I know that I went over.

I really appreciate that Colin Smyth has mentioned the Queen of the South fitba team and the fantastic Crichton estate. Does he agree that projects such as the People’s Project and Alive Radio, and a lot of community support, are out there for the city status bid, and that the whole engagement process is about the community leading the bid from day 1?

Photo of Colin Smyth Colin Smyth Labour

It is about the community. Ultimately, it is about what I call my hame toon. As Queen’s fans say, “Yer hame team’s yer ain team.” I have such memories of supporting Queen of the South—at the 2008 Scottish cup final, for example. It did not matter that we did not actually win the game—thousands of the blue and white army still proudly paraded through the town behind the open-top team bus, days after the game. Getting to that final led to Queen’s only venture into Europe, against Denmark’s FC Nordsjælland. I remember walking through Copenhagen’s main street in the days before that match. It felt as if we were walking through Dumfries as we stopped to chat to so many familiar faces—guid neighbour after guid neighbour.

As Emma Harper said, it is that community spirit and friendliness that really make the town of Dumfries. City status would make Dumfries, and the work of the community groups that have been mentioned—from the Midsteeple Quarter to the People’s Project—encapsulates the pride that we have in our town.

I do not know whether the city status bid will be successful. As we have heard, some people might ask whether it is worth it, as it does not come with any extra funding. We are a very proud town, but I know that the research suggests that achieving city status can provide an economic boost and put a place on the map, and Dumfries has as good a case as anywhere to be a city.

Photo of Jenni Minto Jenni Minto Scottish National Party

Like Bob Doris, I have holidayed in Dumfries, and like it. Would Colin Smyth agree that Oban, in Argyll and Bute, is also a good contender to be the newest city in Scotland?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Be careful, Mr Smyth. [

Laughter

.]

Photo of Colin Smyth Colin Smyth Labour

Oban’s was the very first whisky distillery that I visited, many years ago. However, one of the most recent ones—the Annandale distillery—is close to Dumfries, so we could maybe do a swap visit in the holidays at some point in the future.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

That was not being careful, Mr Smyth. [

Laughter

.]

Photo of Colin Smyth Colin Smyth Labour

It was very uncareful, Presiding Officer.

Moving on quickly, I thank those behind the bid—Mark Jardine, the council and the community groups. Whatever the outcome, I hope that this process of discussing how to make Dumfries even better keeps going after the bid, irrespective of whether we win it.

A sign above my office in the Parliament says Doonhamer. In my first ever speech in the chamber, five years ago, I told members that the Doonhamers is Queen of the South’s nickname, but also the name for those of us from Dumfries. I explained that

“Its origins lie in the 19th century, when many people from the town worked away from home, particularly on the railways in Glasgow, and they talked about going back doon hame to Dumfries.”—[

Official Report

, 31 May 2016; c 39.]

The term has never been more apt than it is today, because, sadly, young people from many of our towns and regions still leave their area for the high-skill, high-wage employment opportunities that are not always available doon hame. That is why I stood for Parliament five years ago. We had lost big manufacturing bases such as ICI, Nestlé and Uniroyal, and I wanted to fight for better opportunities for our young people in what can often be a forgotten part of Scotland.

It is also why I campaigned for a decade as a councillor, representing the Dumfries town centre ward of Nith, for a south of Scotland enterprise agency, which is now up and running, and why I was part of the early days of the Borderlands initiative, which has now developed into the Borderlands inclusive growth deal.

Much more still needs to be done. Whether we win or lose the city status bid, this cannot be the end of the debate on the future of Dumfries. Those who live there and have a genuine stake in our town’s future want to see action and more opportunities for young people, and improvements to our town centre. Ensuring that we deliver that action must be the legacy of the bid.

I said at the start of my speech that Dumfries is where I was born and where I have always lived. I suspect that that will always be the case, irrespective of whether we are a proud town or become a city, and I will be more than happy with that.

Photo of Paul McLennan Paul McLennan Scottish National Party

I welcome this opportunity to speak in the debate, and congratulate my colleague Emma Harper on bringing it to the chamber.

In my short time in Parliament, I have often shaken my head at contributions from Tory members, but today really beats all. As a constituency MSP for East Lothian, which is part of the South Scotland region, I am pleased to support my colleagues’ calls for Dumfries to receive city status. I was delighted that the local council unanimously supported the bid, and that it has been supported by Labour and SNP MSPs. Oddly, although we have heard the reasons why, no Tory MSP has supported the bid.

Most people think that they know what a city is—they think that a city is a large, densely populated and distinct urban area. A lovely old cathedral is a must—although, as we have heard, that requirement is long defunct, having ended in the 19th century—and the size of the city does not really matter.

The bounds of city status throw up a plethora of quirks. There are 51 cities in England and 69 in the UK, including seven in Scotland, six in Wales, and five in Northern Ireland. Why not Dumfries?

City status is granted by the monarch. Although obtaining city status does not grant the city any special rights, it is a mark of prestige and can be a symbol of pride for citizens.

Photo of Oliver Mundell Oliver Mundell Conservative

I find it very depressing to hear from someone who represents a rural county that city status is all that matters and that somehow being a city is better than being a rural area. What does someone get from living in a city that they do not get from living in a rural area?

Photo of Paul McLennan Paul McLennan Scottish National Party

I will come on to that, although I have to say, as the local member for East Lothian, that if someone suggested city status for Dunbar, Haddington or Tranent, I would bite their hand off.

As has been seen in Perth and Inverness, city status can bring many economic benefits, including increased visitor numbers and a place on the international map. I will touch on the research that has been done on that.

Dumfries has an exciting opportunity to be, geographically, the first and last city in Scotland. It also has an exciting opportunity to be the first and only city in the South Scotland region, which is important.

As Emma Harper said, Dumfries was the home of Robert Burns, Peter Pan and Robert the Bruce. Dumfries—and, indeed, the whole South Scotland region—has wide and expanding areas of forestry, peatland and outdoor green space, which are hugely important in our fight against the climate and biodiversity emergencies.

Dumfries and the South Scotland region are also Scotland’s adventure playground, which is important when it comes to attracting visitors. It has world-class hikes, cycle routes, lakes, water for kayaking and swimming, and the world-renowned 7stanes mountain biking facilities. The area also offers world-recognised food and drink, including from local breweries and gin, whisky and rum distilleries. [

Interruption

.]

I can hear comments from the other side of the chamber; I will come on to that.

Becoming a city can be great for business, tourism and civic pride, which is shown in research that was carried out by the University of Reading, which has no interest in the matter at all.

Photo of Emma Harper Emma Harper Scottish National Party

I hear the chunterings from sedentary positions across the chamber. If Dumfries applies for city status, is that not part of what we want? We must have the forward-looking aspiration for the town that the idea is something that people should embrace.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I observe that chunterings have come from other quarters throughout the debate.

Photo of Paul McLennan Paul McLennan Scottish National Party

A study that was led by a geography professor, Steve Musson, found that winners of city status in Scotland, including Inverness and Stirling, outperformed their regional neighbours in business growth. That is what Oliver Mundell opposes. Research shows that city status brings economic benefits, so it beggars belief that he is opposing it for political reasons and nothing more.

Photo of Oliver Mundell Oliver Mundell Conservative

Will the member take an intervention on that point?

Photo of Paul McLennan Paul McLennan Scottish National Party

No. I am sorry.

The study also found that international firms seeking new bases in the UK are likely to favour cities over towns. Inward investors seeking the best return for their money are drawn to areas that offer large development sites, well-educated workforces and economies of scale.

In becoming a city, Dumfries—and the wider region—might also have greater potential to retain the young workforce because city status will bring economic benefits and provide them with jobs and other positive-destination career outcomes.

However, those are not the only benefits. Dumfries becoming a city could also be a source of great pride for the tens of thousands of people who live there. If we look at Britain’s smallest city, St Davids, which has 1,600 people, the benefits of city status are clear for all to see.

I again congratulate Emma Harper on bringing the debate to the chamber. I welcome the opportunity for Dumfries to become the first and last city in Scotland, and I wish it every success in taking that forward. It is Dumfries today; perhaps it will be Dunbar tomorrow.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I call Finlay Carson, who joins us remotely.

Photo of Finlay Carson Finlay Carson Conservative

With part of the town of Dumfries falling within my constituency of Galloway and West Dumfries, I welcome the opportunity to celebrate and raise the profile of its largest town and the seat of the local authority. However, I am disappointed—but not surprised—by Paul McLennan’s feigned outrage and his suggestion that our position is to do with party politics. Our not supporting the bid does not mean that we do not have the highest aspirations for Dumfries.

The term “Queen of the South” was first used in an address by the local poet David Dunbar, who stood in the 1857 general election. That fitting description has become synonymous with the much-loved town. Generations of my family have lived and worked in the town as hoteliers.

I strongly urge those who have never visited Dumfries to do so, because it has so much to offer—not least the fact that people from the town, who are often referred to as Doonhamers, are among the warmest and friendliest people one could ever meet.

Right from the outset, I wish to make it clear that although I might not be a supporter of the campaign, I have the utmost admiration and gratitude for the campaign behind the bid for the town to be granted city status as part of the eagerly awaited platinum jubilee celebrations. The People’s Project is led by Mark Jardine, who has said that we can make Dumfries and Galloway a tourist destination like the lake district and, by doing so, attract more business to the region. He is absolutely right, but people go to the lake district not because of the draw of the city of Carlisle, but because of the draw of the small towns of Keswick and Ambleside, with their unique and wonderful rural nature. That is what the royal burgh and market town of Dumfries’s selling point should be.

Quite how the town was founded remains something of a mystery. The history books suggest that Dumfries was once deemed to be of great importance by the invading Romans. Indeed, many traces of the Roman presence in Dumfries and Galloway are still being uncovered—coins, weapons, military earthworks and even roads, although I am not sure whether the A75 was included in that list.

The Queen might look favourably on Dumfries because it has strong royal credentials, with William the Lion having granted the charter to give Dumfries the rank of a royal burgh in 1186, in recognition of its importance as a market town and port. A royal castle—which, sadly, no longer stands—was built in the 13th century. William Wallace chased the fleeing English forces southwards through the Nith valley and back over the border and, for good measure, Robert the Bruce slew his rival, the Red Comyn, at Greyfriars church in the town in 1306. Thankfully, things quietened down a bit. The most famous Scot of all, Robert Burns, moved to Ellisland near Dumfries, and later made the town his home in 1791.

Therefore, it is an understatement to say that Dumfries has a rich historical past. We should—and we do, quite rightly—celebrate that fact.

We have already heard a list of famous sons and daughters of Dumfries that would be the envy of many cities. They all came from a rural market town. We are already on the international map because of that.

In her motion,

Emma Harper suggests that city status could benefit Dumfries socially, financially and culturally, and claims that Perth, Stirling and Inverness

“went from strength to strength” as a result of receiving city status. I think that she has got it the wrong way round. In addition, she fails to say how city status could deliver more than a successful rural market town could.

I believe that Dumfries is a sleeping giant that has been failed for too many years, along with the rest of the south of Scotland, by successive Scottish Governments—b ut now is our time. We have the Borderlands growth deal, levelling up funds and, most important, South of Scotland Enterprise, which can be a catalyst for driving improvements in and around the town and—just as important—right across our region to the other major town and gateway, Stranraer. Maybe Emma Harper, like her SNP colleagues, is forgetting the far west and the credentials of Stranraer to be Scotland’s next city.

It is only through interventions and policies such as the Borderlands growth deal that we can achieve greater job creation, increased inward migration and higher visitor numbers. We hope that such interventions, along with the union connectivity review and the strategic transport projects review 2, will result in increased investment and improved transport infrastructure.

Dumfries is already a strong marketing force; it offers outstanding scenery, warm hospitality and amenities that make it the jewel of the market towns of Scotland. That is the title that we should seek, instead of city status, which, despite what Ms Harper suggests, currently does not have the support of many people in Dumfries, never mind the rest of the region.

What we have in Dumfries by the bucket load is a belief that the town can do better. With or without city status, we should grab the opportunities that we have right now to make Dumfries, once again, the happiest and best place to live, work and play.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

How depressing the Conservative contributions have been.

I congratulate my colleague Emma Harper on securing the debate, and I support her call for Dumfries to succeed in its application for city status—a campaign that Emma Harper has long been involved in. I congratulate Colin Smyth, too—a colleague on the other side of the chamber who is also in that camp. It seems that it is only the Conservatives who oppose the bid. Goodness knows why.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

Well, why not? You can depress me again.

Photo of Oliver Mundell Oliver Mundell Conservative

That is very kind and very much in the Christmas spirit.

Christine Grahame is a veteran of Scottish politics. If she thinks that the bid is politically popular, why does she think that the two constituency members representing the region are not desperate to get behind it? The truth is that people in Dumfries do not support it.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

Those members are both Conservatives, so it is political. I have campaigned on many issues—

Photo of Oliver Mundell Oliver Mundell Conservative

What is the political benefit?

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

L et me make a little progress, Mr Mundell, because you are digging a large hole for yourself.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Through the chair, please, Ms Grahame.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

City status is an enigma. For example, London does not have city status but comprises two cities: the City of London and the City of Westminster. City status is a quirky thing, which, as other members have said, is conferred by the monarch after advice from the Government. It is, however, the monarch’s decision.

As other members have said, city status is usually conferred on a royal ceremonial occasion, such as the Queen’s platinum jubilee next year. The criteria are very loose—I will not rehearse them, as they have been mentioned by other members, but they do not include population or cathedrals.

As members can imagine, royal connections are handy, and Dumfries has those going back as far as 1186, when William the Lion of Scotland granted Dumfries royal burgh status. In 1395, Robert III, by charter, granted Dumfries the rights of a town. Next year, we might have another monarch granting rights.

I have referred to a Robert, so let us remember, as others have done, that Robert Burns spent his last years in Dumfries, from 1796 until his death five years later. His body is now interred in the Burns mausoleum.

I turn to Burns’s creative connections, particularly when he was at Ellisland farm, which he worked and which now has a complex and the Burns museum. I have been to and spoken at Burns nights there. Famously, Robert Burns wrote “Auld Lang Syne” in Dumfries. Although I do not know of a more internationally known song than “Auld Lang Syne”, I do not think that many people realise that it was written in Dumfries, and not in Alloway. “Ae Fond Kiss” was also part of the creativity that came from Burns’s years in Dumfries.

Burns wrote so much—130 songs and poems—during his short time in Dumfries before he died, and although he may not fit the traditional definition of a royal, he definitely was, and remains, Scottish royalty in my book. City status would enhance and remind international travellers of the powerful connection of Burns with Dumfries. It is not just Alloway and Burns’s cottage that are in the frame.

Finally, on a personal note, what have I got to do with Dumfries and Galloway? Well, I lived in Minnigaff, and I taught at the Douglas Ewart high school in Newton Stewart for more than a decade. Both of my sons were born in the Cresswell maternity hospital—since demolished, although that has nothing to do with my sons having been born there. Both my sons are Gallovidians by birth. I will always remember the breakneck 60-mile journey from Minnigaff to the Cresswell in a pretty rickety ambulance. My next-door neighbour, who was the local midwife, had to have a stop every so often to relieve herself of car sickness. Thank goodness her delivery skills were not required en route.

Later that night, small Angus—all 8 pounds 3 ounces of him—fell asleep and I left the ward. A first-time mum, I stood before a floor-to-ceiling window and looked out over Dumfries, the darkness lit up by the street lights, and wondered what I had let myself in for; 48 years later, with that son now a father himself, I am still wondering what I let myself in for. That is one of my fond memories of Dumfries. I remember that night very clearly and I remember thinking what a beautiful place it was. It might not be a royal connection, but it is my connection.

I thank Doonhamers Emma Harper and Colin Smyth for, at the very least and whether or the bid is successful, shining a bright light on Dumfries.

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

I thank Emma Harper for lodging the motion. She has been an energetic and feisty champion for Dumfries and the south of Scotland and I congratulate her on all her work to make the case for city status for Dumfries, which she set out in her speech.

I thank members for their speeches. I have learned a lot about the many famous sons and daughters of Dumfries and about how the town has been a place of invention down the centuries. Given how Emma Harper and other members have sold the town and its attractions to the rest of us, perhaps we should take a leaf out of Bob Doris’s book and take a holiday there at some point in future. Whatever happens to the town’s bid for city status, the debate has provided a good opportunity for members to talk up Dumfries’s many qualities.

We have heard much about what makes Dumfries unique and a deserving candidate for city status. However, several towns in Scotland are applying for city status and I have no doubt that they are all strong candidates; the Scottish Government and I would not want to choose a favourite.

Indeed, I have to be extremely careful. As someone who lives in Elgin and who represents Elgin in this Parliament, I must note that Elgin, too, is bidding for city status. Elgin has a cathedral, which is known as the lantern of the north; it also has too many seagulls, which I hear is an attribute of many of the candidates. Of course, Elgin is bidding alongside not just Dumfries but Dunfermline, Greenock, Irvine, Livingston, Oban and St Andrews.

However, today’s debate is about Dumfries. I will highlight some of the ways in which the Government is supporting Dumfries and the wider region.

In April 2020, we launched South of Scotland Enterprise, the economic and community development agency for Dumfries and Galloway and the Scottish Borders. SOSE has already supported a range of projects in Dumfries, including through funding of £8 million to support personal protective equipment manufacturing firm Alpha Solway to establish a new manufacturing hub.

In March 2021, we signed the Borderlands inclusive growth deal, which includes Scottish Government investment of up to £85 million in the south of Scotland over 10 years, along with £65 million from the United Kingdom Government, which means that there will be total investment of £150 million. The projects that the deal supports will enhance regional economic performance, develop the region’s tourism offer, support innovation in key sectors, develop the skills and infrastructure that are needed to build communities and create jobs, and improve digital connectivity across the south.

Photo of Oliver Mundell Oliver Mundell Conservative

The minister has missed one important investment from his list. What has happened to the dualling and upgrading of the A75 over the 14 years of his Government? The answer is nothing.

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

I thought that the member would use the opportunity to celebrate the many good policies that we have put in place to support Dumfries and the wider region. To be fair, in this debate, the Conservatives have come across as—as my late mum would say— big drips looking for a puddle; I think that many people will be taken aback by the negativity that some members have expressed, given the consensus on talking up the attributes of Dumfries.

Dumfries will benefit from the dairy nexus project, which will deliver cutting-edge research to facilitate the decarbonisation of dairy farming. The centre will be based at Scotland’s Rural College’s Barony campus in Dumfries. The Scottish Government has committed £4 million to support the project.

As other members said, through the Borderlands deal, Dumfries and Galloway will also benefit from £5 million of Scottish Government funding for the 7stanes mountain biking network. That investment will enable the upgrading of several sites and their associated facilities, to develop a stronger visitor experience and to encourage users to travel across the region.

Photo of Emma Harper Emma Harper Scottish National Party

So much is going on in the south-west. The minister talked about the dairy nexus project and the investment in Alpha Solway; a lot of investment is happening in Dumfries right now.

Does the minister agree that even the aspiration to apply for city status could raise awareness and shine a light on the south of Scotland?

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

Emma Harper makes a good point. That is, no doubt, one of the considerations that all the communities that are bidding for city status have taken into account. After all, the competition is being organised by the Queen’s platinum jubilee civic awards, which will announce the successful cities next year. Clearly, that group of people—the committee or whoever is taking the decisions—feel that it is worth while for communities to bid for city status. The Lord Chancellor will make a recommendation to the Queen in due course. Others believe that there are benefits to be acquired from city status.

As we are debating the matter against the backdrop of Covid, I point out that Dumfries has also played its role in the national efforts against the pandemic and in the economic and community recovery from its scarring effects. The Scottish Government has provided £55,000 to the Stove Network, Scotland’s only arts-led development trust, to mitigate the impact of the pandemic through increasing skills, knowledge and the availability of shared resources for community-led activity.

Our high streets have been particularly impacted by the pandemic. Somebody mentioned empty shops in many communities throughout the country. Midsteeple Quarter is a community-led initiative that seeks to breathe new life into Dumfries town centre by developing a section of the High Street as a contemporary living, working, socialising, learning and enterprising quarter. It aims for the local community to take control of and refurbish underused and neglected High Street buildings. That is another issue in which Emma Harper is taking a close interest. The initiative received £300,000 from the Scottish Government through investment from the south of Scotland economic partnership and will receive continuing support from South of Scotland Enterprise as well.

The regeneration work that supports Dumfries town centre is a great example of what we want to happen throughout Scotland. We aim to achieve that through our place-based investment programme. Local people have stepped up with ambitious plans for revitalising the town centre. They have identified opportunities to bring buildings back into sustainable use. Those solutions promote inclusive economic development, with community wealth as a key theme.

I recognise the efforts of the people and organisations of Dumfries. In particular, I recognise the considerable work that Dumfries and Galloway Council has done in preparing the bid. As we have heard many times in the debate, Dumfries is a wonderful town. It has a strong sense of community and a unique historical, cultural and civic heritage. Its business base—from food and drink to agriculture, tourism and manufacturing—is dynamic and full of innovation. It is also, as Ms Harper stated, the town of Bruce, Burns and J M Barrie, who based the world of Peter Pan on the gardens of Moat Brae house, which is now an attractive tourist destination.

If Dumfries is successful in its bid, it will become a wonderful city. I say best of luck to Dumfries and, of course, the other candidates. Many people are working hard to make their bids a success and I am sure that Parliament will want to wish them all the best.

Meeting closed at 17:19.