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Relationship between government and business needs to be reset

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Chamber Comment by Trudy Morris

New opportunities in the region such as aerospace mean the economic landscape of the far north will change.
New opportunities in the region such as aerospace mean the economic landscape of the far north will change.

As the lead business organisation in the north Highlands, the Caithness Chamber of Commerce has seen first-hand the impacts that the Covid-19 pandemic has had on businesses across the region.

My team and I have dedicated much of our efforts over the past year to advising, supporting, mentoring and, at times, consoling our members as they attempted to deal with the impossible.

The support that has been made available both from UK and Scottish governments has been welcome, and has undoubtedly has seen many businesses through the hardest trading conditions they have ever faced.

Unfortunately, however, this support has too often been marred by incomplete or inconsistent guidance, and by an approach to businesses that at times has verged on the contemptuous.

This has never been clearer than in the recent debacle around new guidance for hospitality businesses, released less than two weeks before the sector was set to reopen. The way that this was handled and the unnecessary confusion and angst that was generated for businesses as a result revealed some hard truths about the way that government and businesses communicate with each other.

In the run-up to the Scottish Parliamentary elections, then, we are calling for a fundamental reset of the relationship between government and business.

First and foremost, if we are to have any hope of tackling the vast challenges that face us as the economy begins to reopen, we need policy-makers to be talking the same language as business and to understand the very real concerns and frustrations of business leaders. We need clear, long-term strategies for economic recovery and growth, as well as immediate concrete action to support businesses over the coming years.

We also need to see a fundamental rebalancing of Scottish Government priorities away from the central belt and towards the oft-neglected rural communities that make up so much of the nation. The Islands Bill was a clear step in the right direction here, but we need this to go so much further, with a formal process in place to assess the impact of policy decisions on rural communities.

The economic environment of the north Highlands is changing as we move away from reliance on Dounreay decommissioning and towards new opportunities in sectors like renewables and aerospace. To enable this, businesses need sustained support from government to ensure that our workforce has the skills it needs to develop these opportunities.

To date, much of the effort in this area has focused on young people, through apprenticeship funding and initiatives such as Developing the Young Workforce. While these are laudable efforts and ones which have been welcomed by businesses in the region, they cannot form the whole picture. We also need to see funding to help employees re-skill and transition to new sectors, and to help us attract and retain skilled people in the region.

The climate emergency and the need for businesses to become more sustainable in their operations will undoubtedly be key focuses over the course of the next parliament. What is vital is that the drive towards net-zero is done in a way that ensures a “just transition” for those communities currently involved in carbon intensive sectors and ensures that support is available as we move towards a sustainable economic future for the region.

These are not solely business issues – everything from transport policy to digital connectivity, employment law to education affects not just businesses but those who live and work in areas like the north Highlands. We need elected officials who will fight not just for businesses, but for the communities that surround them, and who understand the unique opportunities and challenges facing our region.

The upcoming election has the potential to be one of the most important that Scotland has ever faced, with the decisions made by the next Scottish Government having huge ramifications across every aspect of our lives. We are calling for all candidates and party leaders to engage with the business community across Scotland to ensure that together we can build a brighter future.

Trudy Morris from Caithness Chamber of Commerce. Picture: DGS
Trudy Morris from Caithness Chamber of Commerce. Picture: DGS
  • Trudy Morris is chief executive of Caithness Chamber of Commerce.

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