AS THE chair of a charity whose objectives are sustainable economic development in the Highlands, I’m passionate about growing our local economy in line with Scotland-wide targets – but that feels like an increasingly distant dream.
While other UK regions take advantage of channels such as 4G and high-speed broadband, vast tracts of Scotland are faced with disfunctionally slow broadband and often no mobile phone reception. While this might sound like beating the drum for the North Highlands where my charity operates, it will resonate with readers across Scotland.
Industry group Scotland Food & Drink has set a target to grow the sector to a £16.5 billion turnover by 2017. The North Highlands is keen to grow in line with this and I’d hope to see around 1,500 new jobs in the area in that period. Likewise, VisitScotland is targeting a 50 per cent growth in tourism revenue by 2015. Again, we want to play our part.
This strategy for growth will, of course, depend on attracting new businesses to move in or start up in the area, particularly micro businesses and SMEs, which are key for the region. However, such businesses are particularly reliant on these basic communication tools that development stumbles at the first hurdle.
Existing organisations are also suffering and only a few weeks ago a local smoked salmon producer told me he was considering moving out of the area because of the poor mobile phone signal – many overseas buyers conduct their business exclusively by mobile phone. We cannot grow at the pace we should or compete with other economies without improvement in basic connectivity.
I’ve written to Fergus Ewing, the minister for energy, enterprise and tourism, to ask what steps are being taken to bring a 3G signal and improved broadband to the counties of Caithness, Sutherland and Ross & Cromarty. While some improvement and priority is being made to broadband in areas such as Caithness, the status quo, coupled with the delay in upgrading the A9, leaves rural regions like ours feeling like second-class citizens. I am still pressing for a response, but hope that in raising these issues publicly, it will be seen as a call to action for government and for other despairing colleagues.
• David Whiteford is chair of North Highland Initiative, www.north-highlands.co.uk