Associate Feature: High Hopes
For more than a year, businesses and communities in the Highlands and Islands have had to adapt and survive in the face of severe economic challenges triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
It has been a trying time, one shaped by uncertainty and hardship, which has tested the resilience of the region in the face of adversity. But there is now real cause for optimism.
As we enter a different stage of the pandemic, with a vaccination programme continuing at pace and a life beyond restrictions finally in sight, the prospect of recovery is beginning to feel tangible.
Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), the economic development agency for the region, has high hopes for a restart that doesn’t simply return the area to where it was before, but propels it into a new stratosphere.
The agency published a bold operating plan for 2021-22 at the beginning of June, which included targets to support between 700 and 800 jobs and increase business turnover by more than £80m.
In addition, there are plans to support 30 to 40 new income generating community assets and increase social economy turnover by between £3m and £4m.
HIE has also vowed to pursue opportunities for employment and growth in evolving sectors such as space, renewable energy, life sciences and the marine economy.
Speaking to Carroll Buxton, HIE’s interim chief executive, it’s clear she and the team have ambitions for the region not just to survive but to thrive as the country builds back better.
“Creating and sustaining jobs is really important,” she tells Holyrood. “The green recovery and the transition to net zero is vital to Scotland and to us in the Highlands and Islands.
“We are working across all sectors of our economy to help build a green recovery. This means not only supporting those that enjoy a high profile in the green economy, such as marine energy and offshore wind, but also the likes of tourism and food and drink businesses, for example, to actually become greener themselves.
“It’s often about doing things differently – maybe local food sourcing or developing facilities in a greener way, using renewable energy or using more appropriate materials.”
There is a wealth of projects to spark excitement in the region, innovative work which has significant potential to play a major role in Scotland’s overall economic recovery.
Space Hub Sutherland, a satellite launch site, was granted planning approval by Highland Council in August last year.
Up to 12 launches a year could take place there, sending small commercial satellites into orbit for earth observation and other purposes, such as monitoring and understanding climate change. Meanwhile, launch sites are also planned for Shetland, the Western Isles and Argyll.
“We have a nascent space sector here,” Buxton adds. “Space is seen as a huge opportunity for Scotland, notably in terms of satellite manufacture and launch facilities. But we also have Orbex in Moray, a developer of launch vehicles, who have grown from a small business to a significant size and have ambitious plans for growth.
“The potential for the space sector is huge, that’s a completely new sector. The Highlands and Islands itself is geographically very well positioned for satellite launch and you have to take advantage of your geography in those aspects.
“We’ve undertaken, in partnership with others, very thorough research into the potential market, which globally is really significant. We saw an early opportunity and have tried to take advantage of that.”
HIE has also embarked on a major expansion in preparing the next phase of the European Marine Science Park in Oban, which is home to marine science companies who are leaders in their fields.
Meanwhile, HIE subsidiary Wave Energy Scotland is conducting crucial work off Orkney, which could reshape the future of the country’s energy industry.
Two wave energy devices – Mocean Energy’s Blue X unit and AWS Ocean’s Waveswing – are being put to the ultimate test, focusing on performance and reliability. The project follows more than six years of innovation, development and testing supported by WES, backed by £41.6m of Scottish Government investment.
Buxton believes the role of such technology cannot be overstated as Scotland endeavours to become a net-zero society by 2045 at the latest.
“Renewable energy is something that the Scottish Government have made a very clear commitment to and it’s going to make a massive contribution in the transition to net zero,” she explains.
“The marine opportunity is huge – both wave and tidal. I think we have a huge advantage in our coastline and being able to exploit that marine resource to best advantage.”
Collaboration is considered key to HIE as it embarks on innovative projects, which can create conditions for growth and green recovery.
One of those is the new Life Sciences Innovation Centre, a joint project between itself and the University of the Highlands and Islands, on Inverness Campus.
The centre will form part of a wider project with NHS Highland, which is developing an elective care facility on the campus and together these are forecast to create around 190 jobs.
“The Life Sciences Innovation Centre is another significant property project,” Buxton says. “But I think, for us, yes, it provides space, but a lot of the value out of projects like that come from the collaboration that then is undertaken within those spaces.
Carroll Buxton, HIE’s interim chief executive, says renewable energy can create huge opportunities for the region
“We’ve had a number of real collaboration projects with the NHS in the area, the University of the Highlands and Islands and others – some commercial companies, other partners – and I think it’s that collaboration that can bear the real fruit.
“We want to continue working very closely with partners here, the local authorities, the NHS and others, because I think there are huge opportunities in healthcare. We’re all living differently. We want healthcare delivered differently.
“We’ve been working with partners in the region on remote healthcare, how we can support people to stay in their own homes longer, and how healthcare can be delivered differently. So, being able to have those spaces where people can really collaborate to that extent is a huge bonus.”
The future holds promise for the region, which is gradually emerging from an incredibly challenging period caused by coronavirus. Communities have had to adapt to changing restrictions, which at times saw the shutdown of the tourism and hospitality sector – an important one for the region.
HIE of course had a key role in administering additional Scottish Government funding to struggling businesses and communities, which brought the agency into contact with organisations it hadn’t necessarily had a relationship with previously.
During the 2020/21 financial year, it helped deliver more than £47m of additional COVID-19 funding.
Buxton explains: “That was a massive effort, because obviously there were a huge number of businesses in quite severe distress. There were communities that were very keen to try and do whatever they could within their area to support not only the people living within their communities, but the general community infrastructure, to keep going, to survive.
“I think the delivery of the funds was absolutely critical to our population, both businesses and communities. HIE’s role in that was very important, not only with the clients that we knew, but also in trying to get the word out there and to promote the funds, and then to process the applications and get the money to those that needed it.”
Throughout it all, HIE’s own staff showed agility and adapted to working from home seamlessly. “We’ve got really good people,” Buxton says without hesitation.
“We’re not a huge organisation, it’s still the size that you can know people and our staff over the period of the pandemic pulled out all the stops to adapt to working from home and continue to deliver.”
That agility can be captured through HIE’s willingness to embrace digital technology, particularly in the running of XpoNorth, Scotland’s leading creative industries conference.
The planning for a physical event was already well under way when the pandemic hit in March 2020, but HIE’s leadership team took the brave step of transitioning to a virtual event, which was held in June last year and again remotely this year.
Buxton says: “The numbers that actually engaged with that conference – which covers a huge range of topics – just skyrocketed. More than 6,000 delegates participated in the virtual event last year compared to the usual 2,500 at the physical conference. We were able to reach a much wider geography too.”
The ability to adapt in challenging circumstances will stand the agency in good stead as it looks towards a bright future, one focused on a green recovery and shaped by exciting opportunity.
This article was sponsored by Highlands and Islands Enterprise.