It’s up to us to create the future of the rural economy with Harper Macleod

Chris Kerr, Senior Partner for Highlands, Islands & Moray, Harper Macloed LLP.

Chris Kerr is a partner at Harper Macleod and leads the firm’s rural economy team. Here he reflects on some of the key themes that emerged from the recent Scottish Highlands and Islands Rural Economy Conference and Awards – The SHIREs.

A fortnight ago, hundreds of people from across the country, primarily from the Highlands, Islands and Moray, came together virtually for the second annual (and first virtual) edition of The SHIREs Conference & Awards.

We created the SHIREs in 2019 to draw attention to the importance of Scotland’s modern rural economy, knowing then little what the next two years would bring. Rural businesses, organisations, businesses and individuals have faced unprecedented challenges and one of the fascinating aspects of this year’s SHIREs has been to see how people have coped with these challenges and, in many cases, have overcome them.

As leader of Harper Macleod’s team in the Highlands, Islands and Moray, it was great to see such a diverse group of delegates and nominees come together and see common themes emerge. It was a bit daunting to be in the studio co-hosting the proceedings with the inimitable Nicky Marr, but at least it gave the tartan trews a rare outing these days!

Throughout the day, we were fortunate to be joined by a brilliant selection of speakers, from Mairi Gougeon MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Rural and Islands Affairs to one of my favorite sessions, a panel of four young rural entrepreneurs who had developed their business during confinement.

At night, we celebrated the best of the rural economy across all sectors and ten award categories, in what was an almost normal refreshing occasion.

Key themes

Defining the rural economy has always been a challenge. Not surprisingly, not everyone who might fall into the rural category sees themselves as such, and we heard the term “semi-rural” reoccurring whenever someone was asked to describe themselves.

Traditionally, rural was land-based – fishing, agriculture and forestry – but in a modern context this means businesses and organizations in all sectors of the rural economy. Improved connectivity and the fact that more and more of us are working remotely means we can reach some of our most remote and fragile places and trade globally.

The conference sessions covered a wide range of such a diverse economy, but it was clear that the same issues recurred whether we heard from a landowner, entrepreneur or community group.

There is no “one size fits all” rural economy – specific needs are often determined by particular geographic areas. This is something that policy makers in particular need to recognize when considering the impact of a broad approach.

Following the COP26 climate summit, we know that the way we live and work in rural areas is going to change in the years to come, and it’s a change that we need to make sure is for the better and not not miss the opportunity that change presents.

For example, it looks like the market for carbon sequestration and land use to offset carbon use elsewhere is set to grow rapidly. As a region of potentially great value both environmentally and financially, we must be aware of the unintended consequences of this rush and ensure that it does not negatively affect the communities upon which our entire rural economy relies.

Sustainability, the preservation of our natural capital, the importance of community engagement and the inherent entrepreneurial spirit and solution-oriented nature of the modern rural economy were other key themes that emerged.

To advance

The theme for the day was “Our Land, Our Lives, Our Legacy”. As a lawyer who has spent a significant part of my professional life in the Highlands, Islands and Moray, one thing that stood out to me was this sense of belonging that exists – that is one of the main reasons for which people want to stay or are attracted to that part of the world.

If the right support and infrastructure is provided, people and communities will thrive – we have the talent, motivation, ideas and products to deliver world-class results.

See SHIREs conference and awards

Anyone who missed the event can now watch recordings of the SHIREs conference and awards here:

Harper MacLeod
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