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February 10, 2016

Are the highlands and lowlands really so different?

The stark contrast between Scotland’s two key economic development agencies – Scottish Enterprise and Highland and Islands Enterprise – is one of the great mysteries of our time. HIE, celebrating their 50th anniversary, are credited with transforming the fortunes of their region. Central to their approach has been an understanding that economic development is not an isolated discipline and that social, cultural and community development are all interlinked. For some reason SE have consistently dismissed these ideas out of hand. Why?


New Start Magazine

In 1965, a plan was put in place to tackle ‘the Highland problem’, a seemingly unstoppable downward spiral affecting the whole economy of the Highlands and Islands.

That plan was the creation of the Highlands and Islands Development Board (HIDB). Operating across half of Scotland, the board had two aims: assisting the people of the Highlands and Islands to improve their economic and social conditions, and enabling the region to play a more effective part in the growth of the nation. Armed with an initial budget of just £150,000 and six members of staff, HIDB set about making the Highlands and Islands an attractive place to live, work, study and invest.

Fifty years on, and renamed Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), the agency now serves a remarkably transformed region. Overall population has increased by more than 20% to just under 470,000, employment levels are up and unemployment figures are below the national average. Today, HIE is helping to grow more than 600 businesses and social enterprises and is supporting 44 communities with their aspirations for the future.

‘Over the last 50 years, we’ve learned a lot about economic development that can be replicated across the UK and further afield’

From ‘problem’ to economic success story

HIDB’s first annual report included sections on agriculture, forestry, tourism, crofting and fishing, and on the idea of a ‘Highland university’. Manufacturing was seen as ‘urgent’ in halting the emigration of young people from the region, and the Moray Firth was viewed as having great development potential.

Connecting the region to markets and suppliers was one of the greatest challenges and the board set its sights on improving transport infrastructure and services. Beyond the traditional industries of the region, the 1960s also saw the UK’s prototype fast nuclear reactor arrive in Dounreay, stimulating supply chain activity and developing exportable technology.

Meanwhile, several companies began exploring the potential of fish farming in the region. From its earliest days, the board recognised that developing a strong aquaculture industry had significant potential to support employment in many of the more remote areas, where alternative opportunities were scarce.

Making the most of the region’s assets and attracting investment

Over time, investment in infrastructure and training helped the region become ideally placed to benefit from the growth in the energy sector – initially from North Sea oil and gas, then from renewable energy, with the European Marine Energy Centre in Orkney cementing Scotland’s global lead in marine renewables.

As transport links improved, the issue of connectivity began to focus on telecommunications, through collaboration with companies such as BT and Vodafone. Not only did this help Highlands and Islands businesses to market themselves further afield, it enabled the region to attract inward investment and benefit from new ventures such as call centres.

With improved transport links, communications and increased availability of business premises, the appeal of the region quickly became clear to another important sector crucial to a successful region – universities.

Heriot Watt University, University of Aberdeen, University of Stirling, Robert Gordon University, Scotland’s Rural College and the Glasgow School of Art all have a presence in the region. And, of course, the University of the Highlands and Islands operates through a partnership of 13 independent colleges and research institutions from Lerwick to Perth.

Giving people greater control

Community development has become a central component of Highlands and Islands Enterprise’s strategic approach.

Since the advent of the Scottish Parliament, land reform legislation has enabled HIE to support widespread community ownership of land and assets, giving local people greater control over their own futures.

The Scottish Government’s Scottish Land Fund (SLF) is now delivered by HIE and the Big Lottery Fund. The most recent SLF funding awards brought the total amount of community-owned land in the Highlands and Islands to 455,422 acres.

HIE’s Community Energy Unit has also evolved into a stand-alone social enterprise delivering community energy projects across the country.

Fifty years on, the Highlands and Islands has seen a dramatic transformation in its prosperity and global status. From Shetland to Argyll, and from the Outer Hebrides to Moray, examples of flourishing and ambitious businesses, social enterprises, communities and individuals abound. Population has increased, unemployment is lower than the rest of the country, increasing numbers of young people want to stay in the region and several growth sectors such as life sciences, renewable energy and creative industries have emerged.

Over the last 50 years, we’ve learned a lot about economic development that can be replicated across the UK and further afield. Make the most of your cultural assets – here for example, Gaelic has been embraced to help strengthen communities and promote the region as a prime location for business, education and tourism. Investment has been made in facilities – strong broadband and mobile communication networks, development of sites and improvement to transport have been made to underpin economic growth.

HIE continues to have ambitious plans for the future. It will be characterised by dynamic, sustainable communities, and a globally-connected region that is attractive, particularly to young people, as a place to live, work study and invest. Here’s to the next 50 years of development.