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Chris Kerr is a Partner at Harper Macleod and heads up the firm's dedicated Rural Economy team. Here, he reflects on some of the major themes which emerged from the recent Scottish Highlands and Islands Rural Economy Conference & Awards – The SHIREs.
A fortnight ago, hundreds of people from around the country, mainly from the Highlands, Islands and Moray, gathered virtually for the second annual (and first virtual) edition of The SHIREs Conference & Awards.
We created the SHIREs in 2019 to focus attention on the importance of Scotland’s modern rural economy, little knowing then what the next two years would bring. Rural businesses, organisations, enterprises and individuals have faced unprecedented challenges and one of the fascinating aspects of this year’s SHIREs was seeing how people have faced, and in many instances overcome, these challenges.
As the head of Harper Macleod's team in the Highlands, Islands and Moray, it was great to see such a diverse group of delegates and award nominees come together, and to see common themes emerge. It was a little daunting to be in the studio co-hosting proceedings with the inimitable Nicky Marr, but at least it gave the tartan trews a rare outing these days!
During the day we were fortunate to be joined by a brilliant selection of speakers, from Mairi Gougeon MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Islands to one of my favourite sessions, a panel of four young rural entrepreneurs who had grown their businesses during lockdown.
At night, we celebrated the very best of the rural economy across all sectors and ten awards categories, in what was a refreshingly almost-normal occasion.
Defining the rural economy has always been a challenge. Unsurprisingly, not everyone who may fall under the rural category considers themselves to be so, and we heard the term ‘semi-rural’ on a recurring basis whenever someone was asked to describe themselves.
Traditionally rural was land-based – fishing, farming and forestry – but in a modern context it means businesses and organisations in all sectors of the economy in a rural setting. Improved connectivity, and the fact that more and more of us are working remotely, means we can reach out from some of our most remote and fragile locations, and trade globally.
The sessions at the conference covered a broad sweep of such a diverse economy, but it was noticeable that the same issues recurred, whether we were hearing from a landowner, an entrepreneur, or a community group.
There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ rural economy – specific needs are often driven by particular geographies. This is something that policymakers in particular need to recognise when considering the impact of a broad brush approach.
Following on from the COP26 climate summit, we know the way we live and work in rural locations is going to change in the coming years, and it’s a change that we must ensure is for the better and not miss the opportunity that change presents.
For example, it seems that the market in carbon sequestration and land change use to offset carbon use elsewhere is set to grow rapidly. As an area which is potentially of great value both environmentally and financially, we must be mindful of unintended consequences of that rush and ensure it does not adversely affect the communities on which our entire rural economy is based.
Sustainability, looking after our natural capital, the importance of community engagement and the inherent etrepreneurialism and solution driven nature of the modern rural economy were other key themes to emerge.
The theme of the day was ‘Our Land, Our Lives, Our Legacy’. As a lawyer who has spent a significant part of my working life in the Highlands, Islands and Moray, one thing that stood out for me was that sense of place that exists – it’s one of the main reasons people want to stay or are drawn to this part of the world.
If the right support and infrastructure is provided, the people and communities will thrive – we have the talent, the drive, the ideas and the products to deliver world class results.
View the SHIREs Conference and Awards
Anyone who missed the event can now watch recordings of the SHIREs Conference and Awards here: www.harpermacleod.co.uk/view-the-shires-2021-recordings/