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OPINION: Highland businesses will need widespread support to survive the coronavirus crisis

By Hector MacKenzie

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Footfall on High Streets will slowly start to increase after a long period of virtual hibernation.
Footfall on High Streets will slowly start to increase after a long period of virtual hibernation.

As discussed in last month’s column, the Highlands and Islands’ dependency on tourism and hospitality makes this region more vulnerable to the economic depredations of the coronavirus than other parts of Scotland.

Six per cent of the 64 per cent of Highlands and Islands and Argyll businesses that are currently closed believe that they will not reopen, and an additional 36 per cent fear that they won’t, so 25 per cent of all businesses feel threatened.

But while this region might be challenged, it is not ignored. One of the most reassuring aspects of life at the moment is politicians’ eagerness to speak to businesses: to understand what life is like at the sharp end and to hear what is, and what isn’t, working on the ground. I attend many meetings with local MSPs or Scottish Government ministers present.

A prime example of this was an FSB webinar that we organised for businesses last week, the panel comprising the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism, Fergus Ewing MSP, and FSB Highlands & Islands area leader and co-director of the Kylesku Hotel, Tanja Lister. Over 200 people registered and the panel answered questions as diverse as the new cleaning protocols, accreditation schemes, the two-metre rule, Test & Protect, ferry services, staffing, business support, and reassuring local populations.

David Richardson
David Richardson

Another tried and tested way of promoting the small business case to politicians and policymakers is doing what FSB Scotland does best: producing powerful and compelling evidence-based reports. Our most recent was ‘Finding Our Feet: Small Scottish Businesses and the Coronavirus Crisis’. For more, Google ‘FSB Campaigns’.

This document explores the impact of the crisis on smaller firms and sets out a range of actions that central and local governments could take to support smaller businesses as we start to move out of lockdown.

Above all, it emphasises the need to pull out all the stops to save local businesses and economies, for it is these small businesses that drive jobs and services across our communities, and without them the Scottish economy will not recover. The needs of the real economy must be placed at the heart of national and local recovery strategies, and the report highlights a number of important that do just that.

First, there is investing in the recovery of local businesses though new grants and loans, greater public sector procurement from smaller businesses, and a new Scottish business birth rate strategy to boost start-ups.

Targetting support at small businesses in the visitor economy is also vital, especially to the Highlands and Islands, through a new tourism hardship fund and through encouraging more cooperation and collaboration between business sectors and between the private, third and social sectors.

Capitalising on the amazing innovation gains made as many businesses adapted to survive must happen too, and we highlight measures that can strengthen and build on this great work, including improving inadequate digital infrastructure. Investing in local places – in town centres – by redirecting some of the millions allocated to city/region and growth deals to local authorities is another key ask, made all the more urgent by the surge in online shopping, and we also want to see greatly improved childcare provision. Many asks, but asks that will make a real difference!

David Richardson is the Highland development manager for the Federation of Small Businesses

How has your Ross-shire business fared and what are your plans now restrictions are being eased? Share your stories by emailing hector.mackenzie@hnmedia.co.uk

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