The chairman of Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), Professor Lorne Crerar, has praised the region’s businesses for their role in delivering a successful year of investment and job creation.
Year-end figures compiled by HIE show an estimated 855 jobs are expected to be created or retained in the region, as a result of the organisation’s investments during the year; 124 of these in fragile areas. Turnover among supported businesses and social enterprises is anticipated to increase by £140 million over three years and international sales by £90 million, following HIE’s support.
The region’s social economy turnover is forecast to increase by almost £4 million, £1.8 million of this by community-owned assets.
A number of major infrastructure projects moved forward, including the opening of Inverness Campus, Nigg South Quay and and Lochboisdale Port, and completion of new business premises at Sandbank near Dunoon.
HIE subsidiary Wave Energy Scotland completed its first full year inoperation. And digital connectivity continued to improve for businesses and households across the region, with the number of premises with access through the HIE-led Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband project reaching 122,000.
Professor Crerar said: “The current challenges facing industries, businesses and commercial growth worldwide are well documented. The progress we have seen in the Highlands and Islands over the past year, in the context of those challenges, is testament to the superb levels of ambition, entrepreneurship and innovation that thrives in businesses, social enterprises and communities across our region.
“HIE’s role is to foster those qualities and invest in initiatives that stimulate and enable growth. I am delighted we have been able to make such good progress and look forward to working with partners and clients to continue to grow the region’s economy in the years ahead.”
The organisation also helped attract six foreign direct investments which are expected to deliver 218 jobs and secure investment of £111 million for the region. These include Norbord’s plans to invest £95 million in its Inverness mill and CS Wind UK’s acquisition of Wind Towers Scotland in Machrihanish, which is set to safeguard over 130 skilled jobs and create a further 70.
In delivering its community development remit, HIE is now supporting 84 groups to acquire and manage assets ranging from shop premises to lifeline services to whole estates. Last year, 14 groups received £301,000 HIE investment against total project costs of £2.4m.
A further 20 projects across the country (11 in the Highlands and Islands) received Scottish Land Fund support for land acquisition. Investment of £3.2 million, administered by HIE and Big Lottery, brought 42,121 acres into community ownership. A total of 52 communities have been awarded £10.8 million since the fund was launched in 2012.
There was major progress in specific sectors, such as life sciences, tourism, food and drink, energy and creative industries. This included £8.5 million investment by HIE subsidiary, Wave Energy Scotland, in 35 research and development projects, and two new life sciences ventures at the Alexander Graham Bell Centre in Moray.
Last year marked 50 years since HIE’s predecessor, the Highlands and Islands Development Board (HIDB), was established. The anniversary, combined with Scotland’s Year of Food and Drink provided a platform to showcase the region’s produce and the growing success of the food and drink and tourism sectors in particular.
New creative industry networks helped 250 businesses receive in-depth support and held 40 events across the region. These included the first Shetland Creative Industries Forum and the successful HIE-funded XpoNorth festival, which drew a record attendance of 1,465 to Inverness.
The year also saw the completion of a three-year entrepreneurship programme. This enabled account managed clients to tap into the knowledge and expertise of one of the world’s leading business schools, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The number of premises with access to superfast broadband through the HIE-led Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband project, reached 122,000 in 2015/16. HIE-led Community Broadband Scotland (CBS), which supports communities in the country’s most hard-to-reach areas beyond the scope of mainstream fibre rollout, approved grants totalling £1.6 million and covering 2,100 premises.
HIE’s regional IT Engagement programme focused on helping organisations understand and capitalise on the new opportunities that improved connectivity presents. More than 35 businesses received a ‘Digital Health Check’ and 750 delegates attended 68 digital workshops.
Activities to improve the region’s appeal to young people meanwhile included the extension of ScotGrad , the popular graduate placement programme run in the region by HIE, to include placements with social businesses. Fifty two new graduates were placed with businesses across the Highlands and Islands during the year.
A HIE study into the attitudes towards and aspirations of young people towards the Highlands and Islands reported that more than half of those who took part said they believe the region is a better place to live now than it was five years ago. A similar number think it will be better still in the next five years.
Professor Crerar added: “Many of the challenges facing our economy last year remain with us still. Oil prices are still very low. Public sector budgets are under pressure; something that will affect social enterprise in particular. However, a growing resilience, coupled with the innovation and drive across the business sector means that the Highlands and Islands is well placed to meet these challenges, continue to grow and prosper and remain competitive internationally.”