Offshore wind turbines

During my first month as HIE chief executive, I’ve had the great pleasure of speaking to many people who have a leading role in business, local government and other partner organisations throughout the Highlands and Islands.

I’ve also been interviewed about a dozen times by journalists from across the region.

One of the great things about speaking to journalists is you get their take on what’s going on in the patches they cover and what’s important to their readers, viewers and listeners, who of course are the people and communities served by HIE.

Concerns around housing, digital connectivity and transport were raised in pretty much every interview. This chimes with the messages we’re hearing from businesses and communities too, during our Board’s local engagement sessions.

None of these issues falls directly within HIE’s remit of course but they are all hugely important for economic and community development, especially in rural areas and islands where they play a vital role in retaining and attracting population.

This leads me to my six priorities, starting with partnership.

Partnership working

I want HIE to be an exemplary partner, working with communities, businesses, local authorities, public bodies and government at all levels on the many areas of joint interest, including those above.

The Convention of the Highlands and Islands has been in place now for many years and is an extremely valuable forum for collaboration. We now also have Growth Deals across the Highlands and Islands, all of which are being implemented by partnerships led by local authorities.

The newly established Regional Economic Partnership includes HIE and local authorities, with business and community enterprise representation to come.

This joined up approach enables us to build on the region’s successes and contribute to the Scottish Government’s strategy for economic transformation over the next 10 years.

I was asked by journalists about my other priorities too. They are:

Connecting with a wider client base

The Highlands and Islands economy is dominated by small businesses.

The response to COVID saw HIE deliver much-needed and urgent support to a far wider group of companies and community organisations and we want to maintain that broader engagement.

The shift towards online delivery, which was already under way before the pandemic, should enable us to extend our reach and enhance our support for smaller companies across the region, in partnership with Business Gateway and others.

Meeting the productivity challenge

Productivity and innovation go hand-in-hand and we will encourage and help companies to innovate and to embrace digital technologies.

I was encouraged to see in a recent survey that businesses in the HIE area have been increasing their use of new technologies, so there is a real opportunity to build on that and become a leading region in this respect.

We must support this shift and ensure the necessary infrastructure is there. 

Supporting traditional sectors towards net zero

Scotland has ambitious targets to get to net zero by 2045 and importantly to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 75% by 2030. One area of opportunity is in the increasing customer interest in provenance and carbon impact when choosing suppliers.

A major element of the Highlands and Islands brand image is our pristine natural environment, an identity that helps companies in the region to remain competitive.

With this in mind, I want our support to traditional sectors such as food and drink, and tourism to be targeted more towards a net zero recovery and fair work.

Developing industries of the future

The region has huge opportunities in emerging and growing sectors such as offshore wind, the marine economy, space and hydrogen.

The recent ScotWind offshore wind leasing round announcement by Crown Estate Scotland is a great example. This has the potential to make Scotland a world leader in floating offshore wind energy development.

Having many of these projects in the Highlands and Islands emphasises the natural advantages of our region.

Space is another potentially transformational industry for us. There are four satellite launch sites – SaxaVord, Sutherland, Uist and Machrihanish – at various stages of development, and an innovative satellite launch vehicle manufacturer, Orbex, in Moray.

We need to ensure these industries develop in the Highlands and Islands, capture the benefits for our region and support national economic recovery and transformation.

Focusing on communities

Our commitment to supporting and investing in our islands and most rural mainland communities is as strong today as it has ever been. And it will continue to be so.

One example is leading the work on repopulation zones through the Convention of the Highlands and Islands

The pandemic has led to a new focus on quality of life and that, combined with digital technology, should give us grounds for optimism for the future of our region. Our work with communities will remain central to our approach, notably as they play an increasing role in providing affordable housing for young people.

We will maintain our commitment to use and promote the Gaelic language, and will say more in our latest Gaelic Plan, to be published shortly.

These are some of the areas I want HIE to be focusing on. I relish the prospect of leading that process and working with our partners to realise the potential of all parts of our dynamic region.


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