It has been an enormous privilege to chair an organisation of very committed people working tirelessly to secure benefits for a region that is so deserving and very important to me personally.
In 2015 we marked the 50th anniversary of HIE and is predecessor, the Highlands and Islands Development Board. This for me was one of many high points. We reflected on why a dedicated agency was created to deal with the ‘Highland problem’ and the depopulation of this beautiful part of the world, and the remarkable progress we and our partners have delivered since then.
Overall the population has increased faster than the country as a whole, albeit with exceptions in some areas. The Highlands and Islands has its own university, where previously there was none, while several others have expanded their activities in the region. In 2013, only 4% of Highlands and Islands premises had access to fibre-based broadband – now it’s around 90% and I’m confident will reach full coverage soon.
Linked to these and many other improvements are the increasingly positive attitudes of young people towards the Highlands and Islands. More want to remain or return, while others are keen to relocate here for the combination of study and career options and life quality. Young people are of course crucial to emerging industries and to community resilience, so this is a real boost to the region’s confidence.
One of the significant events I faced during my term as chair was the Enterprise and Skills Review, which began in 2017. At the start of that process, there was the real prospect that the independence of the HIE Board could be lost and our regional focus subsumed within a national board. This prompted widespread public support for the retention of a dedicated regional agency in its current form, including its own board representing our distinct regional interests.
We used the review as an opportunity to highlight the importance of HIE’s work and the benefits to the region and to Scotland from the targeted investments it has made over the years in infrastructure, business and community development. As a result, the organisation emerged not only intact, but enhanced in terms of its role in influencing the Scottish agenda and securing recognition of the region’s contribution to Scotland’s economy.
We have our critics and are rigorously challenged on some of our actions, and that is only right. In that context it is extremely heartening that HIE is generally held in very high regard among stakeholders, including our client communities and businesses, Scottish Government, local authorities and other public agencies with whom we collaborate. The fact that the new South of Scotland agency was created in the image of HIE demonstrates this respect and is a source of great pride for everyone in HIE and for me personally.
When I joined HIE in 2008, there was still a predominance of needing to create opportunity for those who live here, those who want to come back, or for others who want to move here from elsewhere. Now there’s an abundance of opportunity, not only linked to the many new and growing industries, but notably the drive towards an economy based on net-zero emissions. We have the skills and expertise here to capitalise on natural advantages such as wind, wave and tide. HIE’s role has evolved accordingly and is now more about taking a place-based approach that capitalises on our assets as well as securing lasting benefits and tackling barriers for businesses and communities across the region.
I have always considered the role of chair as a short-term custodian of something really important; a custodian of all that HIE stands for in supporting the businesses and communities that underpin regional development, and the well-being of the organisation’s people.
Moving on carries a real sense of loss for me. It is closing a chapter I have thoroughly enjoyed. When you start a job like this, you tend to be a reformer, you want to change things and bring in innovation. It’s important, though, to know when to move on and let someone else do the job that is so important; someone who will also cherish the organisation, the role it plays and the region it serves.
You don’t have to look far to see the new set of challenges facing the Highlands and Islands. But there have always been and will always be challenges, and I truly believe there’s never been a better time for the region. Our opportunities are immense, and a key task for my successor will be to lead HIE in unlocking the vast potential that exists across this wonderful region.