Figures compiled by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) show that businesses and communities supported by the development agency achieved a strong performance in 2016/17 despite uncertain economic conditions.
Investments by HIE during the year supported businesses and social enterprises across the region to create or retain 1,688 full time equivalent jobs in the region, 169 of these in fragile areas.
Turnover among these firms is forecast to increase by £120.4 million over three years, and international sales by £79.5 million. The figures reflect steady growth among SMEs (small to medium enterprises) across the region.
Inward investment activity increased significantly during the year with HIE helping to support 12 projects.
Community development activity continued apace through HIE’s work with social enterprises and communities. An innovative Community Account Management programme is helping 47 communities achieve greater resilience through capacity building, asset based development and local service delivery.
The region’s social economy turnover is forecast to increase by almost £5.6 million, £1.8 million of this generated by community-owned assets.
The Scottish Land Fund, administered by HIE and Big Lottery on behalf of the Scottish Government, was extended to all communities across Scotland, including urban areas. In 2016-17 the fund awarded more than £4 million to 54 projects (31 of which were in the Highlands and Islands), including acquisition and post-acquisition developments.
There were milestones with a number of major HIE-led infrastructure projects. Inverness Campus saw the opening of three new buildings, An Lòchran, Aurora House and the first student accommodation block.
In Argyll, the new Fairmile Building in Sandbank Business Park near Dunoon was formally opened, and the European Marine Science Park near Oban secured a number of new tenants.
The year also saw the completion of Dales Voe South in Shetland, a 185m quay to support the growth in decommissioning work, and the installation of all four turbines in the MeyGen floating wind energy project off the Caithness coast. Both projects were supported by HIE.
HIE meanwhile approved further investments in the European Marine Energy Centre in Orkney and the new Orkney Research and Innovation Campus, a joint venture with the islands’ local authority.
Wave Energy Scotland, a subsidiary of HIE, approved £12.4 million to 17 technology development projects.
Digital connectivity continued to improve for businesses and households across the region, with the number of premises with access through the HIE-led Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband project reaching 155,000.
A further 1,400 premises are now connected through 13 projects supported by Community Broadband Scotland (CBS), which is also run by HIE on behalf of Scottish Government. CBS has delivered or has firm plans to deliver broadband to a total of 11,200 premises across Scotland within its current budget.
May 2016 saw the opening of #hellodigital, the Digital Scotland Excellence Centre, established by HIE on Inverness Campus. More than 2,000 delegates have since attended events and business briefings on topics such as drone technologies, digital making, virtual and augmented reality. Companies involved include Google, IBM, CENSIS, the Datalab and Microsoft.
Thirty one graduates and 15 students were placed with businesses across the Highlands and Islands during the year, following the extension of ScotGrad, the popular graduate placement programme run in the region by HIE.
Reflecting on the progress, chair of HIE Professor Lorne Crerar, said: “It has been another year of encouraging progress for the Highlands and Islands.
“The continued oil and gas downturn, pressures on public sector budgets and uncertainties around EU membership have presented many challenges for the region. More and more we are seeing these challenges being met with innovation, ambition, entrepreneurship and resilience by the region’s businesses, social enterprises and communities.
“A key part of HIE’s role is to foster those qualities and target investment in initiatives that stimulate and enable growth. I am delighted at the contribution the organisation has made over the past year and look forward to continuing to work with our partners, businesses and communities across the region and beyond to build on this in the years ahead.”
Details of HIE’s achievements over the year 2016-17 will be published in the agency’s annual report and accounts, which will be laid before the Scottish Parliament in the autumn.