Chris Kerr is a partner at Harper Macleod and leads the firm’s rural economy team. Here he reflects on some of the main 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, mostly from the Highlands, Islands and Moray, came together virtually for the second annual (and virtual first) edition of the SHIREs conference and awards.
We created SHIRE in 2019 to draw attention to the importance of Scotland’s modern rural economy, not knowing what the next two years would bring. Rural businesses, organizations, businesses and individuals have faced unprecedented challenges and one of the fascinating aspects of this year’s SHIREs has been seeing how people have faced and, in many cases, overcome these challenges.
As the leader 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 emerging. It was a little intimidating being in the co-animation studio with the inimitable Nicky Marr, but at least it gave tartans a rare release 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 and Islands Affairs at one of my favorite sessions, a panel of four young rural entrepreneurs who had grown their businesses during the lockdown.
At night we celebrated the best of the rural economy in all sectors and ten award categories, in what was an almost normal refreshing occasion.
Defining the rural economy has always been a challenge. Unsurprisingly, not all people who might fall into the rural category see themselves as such, and we have heard the term “semi-rural” repeatedly whenever someone is asked to describe themselves.
Traditionally rural was land-based – fishing, agriculture and forestry – but in a modern context it means businesses and organizations in all sectors of the rural economy. Improved connectivity, and more of us working remotely, means we can reach some of our most remote and fragile locations, and do business globally.
The conference sessions covered a wide range of such a diverse economy, but it was notable that the same issues have happened again whether we hear from a landowner, an entrepreneur, or a community group.
There is no such thing as a “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 comprehensive approach.
Following the COP26 climate summit, we know that the way we live and work in rural areas will change in the years to come, and it is a change that we must ensure that it is for the best and not not miss the opportunity that change presents.
For example, it appears that the market for carbon sequestration and land use change to offset carbon use elsewhere is expected to grow rapidly. As an area of potentially great environmental and financial value, 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 protection of our natural capital, the importance of community engagement and the inherent entrepreneurialism and solution-oriented nature of the modern rural economy were other key themes to emerge.
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 is this sense of belonging that exists – this 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 are provided, people and communities will thrive – we have the talent, the drive, the ideas and the products to deliver world-class results.
See the SHIREs conference and awards
Anyone who missed the event can now watch recordings of the SHIRE conference and awards here: www.harpermacleod.co.uk/view-the-shires-2021-recordings/