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DAVID RICHARDSON: Time for Scottish Government to start listening to businesses across the Highlands and Islands

By David Richardson

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Business Comment by David Richardson, regional development manager at the Federation of Small Businesses

David Richardson, regional development manager at FSB.
David Richardson, regional development manager at FSB.

Few would argue with any government that wishes to create "a more prosperous, fairer and greener economy that works for everyone", which is exactly what the Scottish Government seeks to do in its National Strategy for Economic Transformation (NSET).

However, smaller businesses are the engines of the economy and the stronger the economy the more that can be done. Sadly, however, instead of the whole country working together to create a better Scotland, many smaller businesses, and especially those in the Highlands and Islands, now find themselves feeling alienated and in despair.

The problem centres largely on the Scottish Government’s new or proposed regulations: short-term lets licenses, the deposit and return scheme, restrictions on the advertising and promotion of alcohol, local visitor levies, and highly protected marine areas (HPMAs). All are being imposed on businesses and all will impact disproportionately on the Highlands and Islands.

Many believe that this problem has arisen because power has been increasingly centralised in Holyrood, and politicians and policymakers are too remote from the businesses, economies and communities most affected by their decisions. Worse still, when they consult, they appear not to heed the results but to plough on regardless.

So what’s the answer? What should the new first minister do to win the confidence of the business community and get team Scotland pulling together to create a country that works for everyone?

First, all of these regulations should be put on hold pending mutually respectful discussions between Holyrood and businesses to establish just where the dangers lie. Then they should be altered so that they work for both the environment and for businesses, economies and communities.

But how to avoid problems like this recurring? First, we need a new "active listening" culture in Holyrood – one that ensures that the voices of smaller businesses really are listened to and fully taken on board. And second, the Highlands mustn’t be disadvantaged by one-size-fits-all policies. "Island proofing" is designed to ensure that new policies and legislation take account of island economies and communities; the time is now right to extend this proofing to cover mainland Highland and Argyll.

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