Fifty years on from the start of government supported economic and community development in the Highlands and Islands the region has emerged as a major contributor to the Scottish economy.
This week (1 November) sees the 50th anniversary of the creation of the Highlands and Islands Development Board (HIDB), which subsequently became Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE).
Established in 1965 with a budget of £150,000 and a complement of six staff, the HIDB was the start of a self-described ‘experiment to tackle ‘the Highland problem’; a seemingly unstoppable downward spiral affecting the whole economic. It was the catalyst for a remarkable journey of regional development.
Working with partner organisations, businesses and communities across the region, the agency has invested in businesses, industry sectors, skills and infrastructure.
The approach has enabled the region to capitalise on opportunities in energy, food and drink, tourism, life sciences, business services and creative industries, among others.
As a result the overall population of the Highlands and Islands has increased by more than 20 percent. Employment levels are also up and unemployment is below the national average. The University of the Highlands and Islands has become established while the region has benefited from significant investment in infrastructure and telecoms.
Perhaps one of the biggest developments over 50 years is perception of the region. The attitudes of young people towards the region appear increasingly positive, according to recent research. The range of opportunities, quality of life, and strong community links are all positive factors in encouraging growing numbers of young people to want to live in the Highlands and Islands. A considerable change from 50 years ago when leaving was considered the way to get on in life.
Today HIE is helping to grow more than 600 businesses and social enterprises and supporting 44 communities with their aspirations for the future, and the ongoing commitment to assist in ambitious projects that will contribute to the future prosperity of the region.
Commenting on the anniversary, Professor Lorne Crerar, HIE chairman, said: “The hard work of everyone who has worked with and for HIE and HIDB over the past fifty years, along with the ambition of communities and businesses and collaboration from partner organisations, has helped to bring about a remarkable transformation in the region. The Highlands and Islands now has recognition as a region of ambitious entrepreneurship, innovation and exporting as well as leading the way in community ownership of land and assets. There are also growing opportunities from emerging sectors such as life sciences and creative industries, and with expanded education provision.
“As we look to the future our focus is not on ‘the Highland problem’ but on seizing Highlands and Islands opportunities. We need to continue investing in facilities such as broadband technology, development sites and premises such as the Inverness Campus and European Marine Energy Centre, and transport connections. We also need to encourage the use of cultural assets such as Gaelic and landscapes to promote the Highlands and Islands as a prime location for business, for university education and for tourism, and as a place of choice in which to live, work study and invest.”
The economic and community development approach taken in the Highlands and Islands has attracted international attention as a successful model for regional economic development. This month HIE will welcome delegations from France, Canada, Japan and Spain for an in-depth briefing on the approach the organisation is taking to marine renewable energy.