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Associate Feature: The height of ambition

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Associate Feature: The height of ambition

Scotland’s Highlands and Islands are legendarily known for displaying tenacity in the face of the stormy waters and strong headwinds. Recently the national economic backdrop has mirrored that weather and for Stuart Black, chief executive of Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), resilience is more than ever a crucial quality. 

Now, boosted by a growing spirit of entrepreneurialism and innovation, he believes 2024 is a once in a lifetime opportunity for the region to play a major role in Scotland’s future economic prosperity – and to help deliver the Scottish Government’s National Strategy for Economic Transformation and the New Deal for Business. 

He says HIE’s new five-year strategy, which was launched in August last year, is intrinsic to that vision, showing how the economic and community development agency will build and sustain a greener, fairer and even more ambitious region.

“Of course, the economic environment is still challenging. While inflation is falling it remains high and we still have conflict in Ukraine and now in the Middle East,” he concedes. “However, I’m convinced we’re now seeing many major opportunities being realised here.”

Some of the key drivers include ScotWind and INTOG (Innovation and Targeted Oil and Gas) offshore wind leases and green hydrogen in the renewable energy sector, while the growth of the space and life sciences industries as well as traditional sectors such as tourism, creative industries and food and drink remain vital.

Sustainability will remain a decisive and growing factor in the region’s development and 2023 saw a major boost to the green energy sector when the bid from Inverness and Cromarty Firth was selected for one of Scotland’s two new green freeports. This is a project that began with a collaboration of some 12 organisations representing industry, academia and the public sector around the Easter Ross and Inverness area.

Black is clearly enthused by the project, which he believes will bring significant benefits to the broader Highlands and Islands region. Haventus, the owner of Ardersier Port, joined the Inverness and Cromarty Firth Green Freeport consortium last June and is redeveloping the 450-acre (182ha) port, near Inverness, as a facility to serve offshore wind farms and other energy projects, backed by Quantum, a US investment firm with an initial investment of around £300m.

It’s not the only interest by multinationals in local green initiatives. Global Energy Group is set to host a huge manufacturing plant for subsea power cables for the offshore wind sector after Japanese industrial giant Sumitomo Electric Industries announced plans for a factory at Nigg. 

Alistair Dodds, reappointed last April for a second three-year term as chair of HIE, points to the potential for the blue economy, including the development agency’s support for a major project to upgrade facilities by the owners of Kishorn Port, Wester Ross. 

At the same time, Faroese company Bakkafrost, owner of the Scottish Salmon Company, is pioneering a major change in the way salmon is produced, using recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS), with renewable energy and recycling of waste.

Its Applecross site is undergoing a £50m-plus phased expansion with a new hatchery and smolt growing facility and the company recently underlined its commitment to sustainable exports by putting a shipment of salmon aboard the world’s first 100 per cent Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) transatlantic flight by Virgin Atlantic. 

Tourism, of course, remains integral across the region and sustainable practices are crucial to ensure the longevity of this industry. New investment will see Stornoway become more accessible for larger cruise ships when its new deep water port opens for the 2024 season. It will accommodate vessels up to 360 metres in length, meaning the harbour will be the only Scottish port capable of facilitating ships such as Cunard’s Queen Mary 2. 

“That’s leading to a significant increase in the number of cruise ships coming to Stornoway, bringing benefits that have already been seen in places like Orkney, Shetland and Invergordon,” says Black. 

“Orkney is reportedly the most popular cruise ship destination in the United Kingdom, with a community of some 20,000 people hosting around 250,000 visitors a year.” 

Black also points to the second golf course being built at Castle Stuart by Canadian golf developer Cabot, the business’s first European project.

 “While they may be looking at other destinations, they have come here first, which is encouraging,” says Black, adding that the AC by Marriot Hotel, the largest in Inverness, is the first of that brand in Scotland. “So increasingly, we’re seeing investors do things here before they do it elsewhere.”

In the region’s capital, the £110m Inverness Campus developed by HIE brings together businesses, researchers, academia and scientists working in life sciences, digital healthcare and technology.

“Scotland’s Rural College’s Rural and Veterinary Innovation Centre is a £12.5m research hub which began by co-locating with us in our building but now has its own facility on the campus which has just opened,” he says. 

Last year the campus also saw the opening of the Life Sciences Innovation Centre by the Princess Royal, a £9.5m facility which is the result of a collaboration between HIE and the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI). 

Whether in the life sciences arena or other sectors, advanced manufacturing and technology is central to HIE’s strategy, which it says will increase productivity, accelerate a data and digital-driven economy and evolve healthcare to overcome geographical barriers and support delivery of the just transition to net zero. 

“One of our biggest investments last year was in Ross-shire Engineering,” explains Black.  The company has said that it expects to create up to 500 jobs after securing £2.8m from HIE for a research and development project as part of an overall plan to invest £14m in developing sustainable water treatment technology.

“It’s looking to send that technology to England in the first instance, but there’s also demand coming from New Zealand for the modular water treatment facilities it’s building here.”
All of which points to an economic landscape that is rapidly changing. And while innovation is fundamental to economic success going forward, communities in outlying rural areas are also taking an increasingly active role in adapting to these advances.

Dodds emphasises HIE’s role in community development. “The investment we’ve put in with our development officers is making a big impact, with several community development trusts being set up,” he says. 

These are starting to create local opportunity and by extension, creating local jobs. He points to Coigach Community Development Company (CCDC) in Achiltibuie as an example of a small rural community with big ambitions.

“The CCDC now has a wind turbine capable of generating up to 500kW a day and has recently bought a site with planning permission for eight homes. 

“You can see the revenue from that wind turbine creating the possibility to buy land, with Scottish Land Fund assistance, and building houses creates jobs, which not only helps the local population but grows the potential to bring new people into areas where they can make a difference to local economies.”

The ongoing housing challenge, says Black, is one regularly raised in community business engagement sessions. “We’ve established a group under our Regional Economic Partnership and this is developing a rural and island housing action plan.”

The housing challenge, says Dodds, must be addressed – but it comes from a positive place. “From Shetland to Argyll and Arran there is no shortage of  well-paid jobs, with an astonishing number of businesses looking to recruit additional people.”

These range from traditional sectors such as tourism, food and drink, and creative industries, but Black observes that there is literally no horizon set for the region’s aspirations. 

Space is an exciting new example of this. SaxaVord Spaceport is developing a launch site and ground station at Lamba Ness in Unst, Shetland which is the first in the UK to be awarded a licence from the Civil Aviation Authority, permitting up to 30 launches a year. On the mainland, Moray-based Orbex already employs over 100 people at its rocket manufacturing plant in Forres and is building Sutherland Spaceport, which is intended to be the first spaceport globally to be carbon-neutral in its construction and operation.

HIE has clearly set its aims high: to be entrepreneurial, innovative, environmentally sustainable and to add value to both the local and national economy. And while the board has also set demanding targets in a time of what Black describes as “tricky economic headwinds” he’s confident that 2024 will see significant milestones achieved.

Life, as Dodds emphasises, is not all about financial bottom line. “One area that I’m really pleased to see our strategy engaging with is our leadership role, working with public, private and community partners across the Highlands and Islands on issues such as housing, transport, digital connectivity and childcare. 

“These are among the important things that help business communities thrive. They’ve got everything to do with economic and community development – and with life in the Highlands and Islands.” 

This article is sponsored by Highlands and Islands Enterprise

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