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EANN SINCLAIR: Public partnerships can help address large-scale challenges in far north

By Eann Sinclair

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Reflecting on the past year, Eann Sinclair of HIE considers how a spirit of collaboration will be needed as we face an economic battle ahead

Eann Sinclair. Picture: John Davidson
Eann Sinclair. Picture: John Davidson

“Unprecedented.” The word has been used so often over the past three years (with unprecedented frequency, some might say) that we have almost become numb to its meaning.

But it does provide a neat descriptor for the series of shocks that have hit us over recent years. The UK’s exit from the EU and its attendant challenges; the Covid-19 pandemic; the cost of living and energy crises – each of these on its own would have posed real difficulties for the north’s economy. But together they have created a perfect storm of issues that is… well, unprecedented!

So 2022, as it exits stage left, leaves us with many puzzles to consider. And as I have looked back over the year and forward to 2023, another word has continually come to mind. Collaboration.

I have spoken before in these pages about the incredible resilience shown by businesses and communities in the north as they struggled to survive and thrive during lockdown periods, and of how they have also contended with costs rising dramatically.

I have spoken less of the work that the public sector has done (and will do much more of) in order to adapt to the changed and changing economic and social landscapes of our time. But it is clear that the past three years has had a profound effect on how the public sector operates.

When Covid-19 began its rapid spread in early 2020, public sector workers in organisations like my own worked from offices in places like Thurso and Golspie. But we were in the fortunate position of having already invested in IT software and hardware that allowed us to pivot overnight to homeworking in March 2020.

Working towards a post-Dounreay economy in the far north requires input from the highest level. Picture: DGS
Working towards a post-Dounreay economy in the far north requires input from the highest level. Picture: DGS

This was of crucial importance in those first months of lockdown when we were able to channel significant Scottish Government Covid response funds to a wide range of businesses and community organisations.

The whole organisation of nearly 300 staff was adapting to home-based working together, and collaborating on a daily basis with other government entities as the response effort took off.

Nearly two years on, we have learned a huge amount from that period, and I think it has both strengthened and galvanised us. We continue to use our offices, but on a “blended” basis, where staff are working both from home and office. But crucially we are using our technological flexibility to allow more time to be spent focused on our clients, for whom the dark days of that initial lockdown period have not necessarily lightened due to increasing staffing issues, rising energy costs and external factors like the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

We are lucky to have a strong set of public sector partners in the north. I spoke in my last column about our particular approaches to community planning in Caithness, but we collaborate with public sector partners in a number of ways, developing a reputation for this over the past 15 to 20 years. Whilst much of this was borne of necessity, we have embraced the challenges of working with partners, and continue to see that approach evolving.

The cost of heating – especially for those off-grid – has increased massively.
The cost of heating – especially for those off-grid – has increased massively.

A great case in point is the evolution of the Caithness and North Sutherland Regeneration Partnership (CNSRP) into the more manageably-named Focus North.

In just over a month Focus North will officially launch at an event in Thurso. It has acted as something of a model over the past 15 years, bringing together the chief executives/senior managers of key organisations like HIE, Highland Council, Skills Development Scotland and the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority to provide leadership in responding to a challenge as large as a post-Dounreay economy.

And that spirit of collaboration has grown into an established way of working – it has been resilient enough to withstand the changing demands of the decommissioning timescales at Dounreay, as well as the other external factors to which I’ve already referred. We will need all of that hard-won appetite to collaborate in the coming year as public finances get tighter and the demands for support continue to grow.

I know we will approach that challenge as we have approached others – with determination and optimism.

  • Eann Sinclair is area manager, Caithness and Sutherland at Highlands and Islands Enterprise.

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