Gathering regional intelligence to inform national decisions is a vital part of our job.
That’s what this week’s meeting of the Economy, Energy and Fair Work committee of MSPs was all about.
Previously, we would have travelled to Edinburgh to appear in front of the committee but instead, HIE finance director Nick Kenton and I shared the screen with colleagues from our sister organisations, Scottish Enterprise, South of Scotland Enterprise and Business Gateway.
The Committee were keen to understand how we’ve responded to the unprecedented challenges presented by COVID-19, and how we plan to help drive Scotland’s recovery.
I took the opportunity to point out the disproportionately severe impacts the pandemic has had on the businesses and communities of the Highlands and Islands, and how HIE had moved swiftly to respond.
When the crisis hit in March, we had switched overnight to home working, reached out to businesses and communities to understand how they were being affected, and linked up with partners across the region and throughout the country – all simultaneously.
This was quickly followed by administering Scottish Government support funds. The FindBusinessSupport online service, which we helped design and launch only a few months before, quickly became a vital resource.
In just a few weeks, we distributed almost £25m to well over 800 Highlands and Islands businesses and awarded 205 grants worth nearly £4m to support resilience and tackle hardship in communities.
At the same time, we used our existing powers to support businesses, social enterprises and communities. This was particularly important in helping those who may not have met the criteria for specific COVID funds.
We also had to find ways to keep the ‘business as usual’ programmes running and accessible across the region. This meant deploying digital communications technology on a new scale.
In the meeting I highlighted XpoNorth, Scotland’s largest creative industries conference, as a great example. Rather than cancel this, our creative industries team decided to run it virtually.
The result was amazing. When you combine the numbers of people who took part in real time with those who followed up on recorded content afterwards, the event reached around 5,700 people – nearly three times its anticipated number of participants had it been a physical event.
We’ve seen correspondingly high numbers taking part in our online webinars and support programmes such as Innovate Your Business, Pathfinder and IMPACT30.
Committee members were understandably keen to explore the ‘what next?’ question.
Well, COVID is still with us. Brexit, to which the Highlands and Islands is also disproportionately vulnerable, is around the corner.
Our focus is collaboration. Our priority is jobs. Our goal is recovery.
We are aligning our resources to support the hardest hit sectors, including tourism and hospitality, energy and creative industries.
We are focusing on the most vulnerable locations, such as islands and remote mainland areas. And we are prioritising key groups such as young people
We are pursuing new opportunities. The space sector, life sciences, energy and the marine economy all offer huge potential where our region has natural, place-based advantages that we can build on for future prosperity.
These activities can contribute to regional growth and make a significant contribution to Scotland’s transition to net-zero. This is a journey we have already started, not least through our subsidiary Wave Energy Scotland, now well-established as the world’s largest wave technology innovation programme.
Our investment in enabling infrastructure, such as digital as well as land and property, will continue as a catalyst for wider economic growth. Evidence and experience prove they have a transformational impact on our communities.
The partnerships we have, at regional and national levels, have become even stronger over the past few months. We must make sure they remain so and work proactively to identify and pursue opportunities for growth through the challenging times ahead.
A video recording of the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee is on the Scottish Parliament website.
A report into the impacts of COVID-19 on the Highlands and Islands economy is available on the Research and Reports page of HIE’s website.