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Cta Man
A landscape in Gigha

Talk about being a victim of success. 

In 60 years, the Highlands and Islands’ population has increased at four times the national rate. And it’s not an over-statement to say the future has never looked so good for the region’s economy and that we may well be on the cusp of unprecedented growth.  

But with success comes challenges, to which we must rise if we are to fully benefit from emerging opportunities. 

So let’s break it down. 

The strengths and opportunities 

We could see thousands of new jobs created through the development of energy transition infrastructure, the renewables industry and nature-based initiatives, all of which will help deliver Scotland’s net zero targets.  

This will, for many parts of the region – particularly in some of our most fragile rural places – present new opportunities for population growth and community resilience.  

The Highlands and Islands has made tremendous progress. The number of people living here has grown by 24% since 1965 to almost 500,000, against an overall Scottish population growth of almost 6%.  

Energy, alongside the likes of creative industries, food and drink and tourism continue to underpin our economy, enabling new sectors such as life sciences, technology and now space, to emerge with confidence.  

The transition from fossil fuel reliance to renewables and a net zero economy places the region at the centre of Scotland’s and the UK’s clean energy revolution.  When transmission infrastructure is complete, the North of Scotland will provide 20% of the UK’s renewable energy. From a region with less than 1% of the UK population, that’s pretty good. 

It’s bringing new, lasting opportunities to areas often considered among the most fragile, as developments stimulate commercial growth and create jobs in rural and island locations. This is in the context of the continuing growth of the marine economy and aquaculture sector, which capitalise on one of the region’s many natural advantages.  

Further opportunities are being created through major initiatives such as peatland restoration, in which the Scottish Government is investing £250m. And then there are the many ports and harbours from Dales Voe to Kishorn, and Scrabster to Stornoway, that are being transformed as part of a £1bn investment.  

The challenges 

It’ll surprise no one to say that the main challenge facing the region right now is the serious lack of housing, particularly in rural areas. And this goes hand in hand with talent attraction and retention. 

Employers create job opportunities, but for people to take these up they need somewhere to live. Likewise, most of our young people would prefer to remain in the region and others want to come here, but again to do so, they need homes. 

The only way we can really capitalise on the exciting economic trajectory is to somehow ensure sufficient housing stock of mixed tenure and geographic spread.  

Migration out of rural and fragile areas remains a serious challenge, as recognised in the Scottish Government’s new Action Plan to Address Rural Depopulation, which identifies housing as a priority for retaining and attracting people. 

The overarching challenge here is to make serious, concerted and collaborative effort to enable flexible, place-based solutions to both rural housing and attracting more economically active people.  

The solutions 

Ulva Ferry, Mull

Fortunately, when it comes to addressing shared challenges and achieving common goals through collaboration, there’s nowhere quite like the Highlands and Islands. 

A good example of this is the Highlands and Islands Regional Economic Partnership, which established a sub-group to focus specifically on housing. This is about understanding the dynamics of the housing system and working with regional and national stakeholders to create solutions. 

Local authorities and housing associations are working hard, within the constraints of financial and market conditions, to deliver housing, including social housing, and respond directly to local conditions.  

The Highland Council, for example, is in the throes of the largest housebuilding programme in Fort William since the 1970’s,  while Lochaber and Skye Housing Association has ambitious plans in Portree.  

Communities themselves are working to find innovative models and partnerships to deliver much needed new homes, with dynamic community organisations including Mull and Iona Community Trust and Harris Development Limited making strides in this area.  

The Communities Housing Trust meanwhile has worked with over 120 communities across Scotland to provide affordable housing, services and amenities. 

Some of the larger employers in the region are also onboard and exploring the potential to collaborate with other businesses and with communities who have the best understanding of current and future housing needs. 

Getting the right homes in the right places is the greatest challenge facing us and vital in our effort to attract and retain economically active people, but if we tackle it effectively, the rewards will be tremendous.  

Collaboration and leadership will get us there and enable rural Scotland to play its full part in and benefit from the exciting opportunities that lie ahead.