Engaging with businesses and communities in Lochaber, Skye and Wester Ross

Published 20/03/2023 by Alistair Dodds CBE 4 min read


Alistair Dodds

We’ve been hearing from businesses, community groups and social enterprises across the region about the challenges and opportunities they are facing, writes Alistair Dodds, Chair of HIE.

It was great to see so many businesses and community group representatives from the Lochaber, Skye and Wester Ross area this week at our latest virtual board engagement event.

This is the second year of engaging this way and it’s been a really helpful way of covering the Highlands and Islands from Shetland to Arran. The sessions are all about listening to people on the ground and discussing the issues affecting their businesses and communities day to day.

I was pleased to be joined by HIE board members Ailsa Raeburn and Calum Ross who both live on the west coast. Among other interests, Ailsa also chairs the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust and Calum is the owner of Loch Melfort Hotel near Oban. HIE Chief Executive, Stuart Black joined us, along with members of our Lochaber, Skye and Wester Ross area team including area manager, Alastair Nicolson.

We are always keen to hear first-hand accounts of business and community development opportunities and the ambitions that local people have for the future. It’s so important that we have this information so that we shape our activities as a development agency and feed back to government. It also helps to give policy-makers a flavour of the opportunities, and not only the challenges, that we see from our communities and businesses.

It's been a difficult couple of years with Brexit, the pandemic and the cost of living crisis affecting everyone and during the session we heard about how businesses and communities have been impacted.

Serious issues that were raised included inadequate transport infrastructure, limitations of broadband coverage in more rural areas,  and the lack of available housing for a growing workforce. Access to appropriate, affordable housing is one the biggest issues facing the Highlands and Islands, and this is what businesses and communities from Shetland to Arran and from the Outer Hebrides to Moray are telling us.

Increasing the supply of new houses is essential to sustain communities, retain and grow population and enable local businesses to recruit and expand.

While housing is not a core part of HIE’s remit, it is closely linked with our role in supporting community and economic development. In our business role, we’ve helped growing companies with employee accommodation projects and construction businesses to innovate the way in which they build houses.
Those who attended the latest session commented positively on how HIE’s role in distributing millions of pounds of additional Scottish Government support during the pandemic, really helped businesses and community groups to continue to operate.

During these virtual engagement events, we’ve met with every area in the Highlands and Islands, some of them more than once and we’ll continue to engage with them this way as they prove to be really useful. For HIE, our collaboration with local authorities, other agencies and local businesses and communities will continue to be vital to our region’s recovery and to future success.

With the Highlands and Islands having many regional opportunities, it’s clear that these are important for Lochaber, Skye and Wester Ross and Stuart’s presentation focused on some of these opportunities for the area.   

Tourism and food and drink are two of our most important sectors that are present in the west coast. Events such as the upcoming World Cycling Championships highlights what the region has to offer. With Lochaber as the Outdoor Capital of the UK, there are significant opportunities for year-round tourism in Lochaber and right up the west coast and to Skye and up to Wester Ross.

Net zero is clearly a huge opportunity for Scotland and we have a key piece of regional infrastructure in Kishorn. We want to make sure that the benefits of green free ports are felt right across the region.

We think the University of the Highlands and Islands is a huge opportunity for our region to reduce the outflow of young people and to attract more people in. The merger of the three UHI colleges to create UHI North, West and Hebrides is welcomed by HIE. And, of course at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig we have Scotland’s Gaelic college, which is not just an important educational facility but an economic regeneration tool.

We’ve also been getting out and about for our board meetings and we recently held events in Moray and Shetland. We’re looking forward to our next one, which will be in Argyll in about six weeks’ time. We’ll be meeting businesses, social enterprises and communities as well as with partners to make the most of new opportunities and to bring benefits to every part of the region.