A SURGE in inward investment activity has resulted in a near-doubling of the number of jobs Highlands & Islands Enterprise helped create or safeguard in its latest financial year.
HIE said yesterday that investments it had made during the year to March 31 had supported businesses and social enterprises to create or retain 1,688 full-time equivalent jobs across the region, 169 of them in “fragile areas”.
A spokesman noted that, in the year to March 2016, HIE had helped support the creation or retention of 855 jobs. He described the 855 figure, which included 124 jobs in fragile areas, as an “about normal” level. He attributed the surge in the jobs figure, to an “unusually high” level, to a leap in the number of inward investment projects supported, to 12 in the year to March 2017 from six in the prior 12 months.
HIE said that projects supported were expected to boost turnover among the firms backed by £120.4 million over three years. It added that the projects supported were expected to boost these companies’ international sales by £79.5m.
The development agency said these projected rises reflected “steady growth” among small and medium-sized enterprises across the region, as well as the impact of major inward investment projects.
Major projects backed included the takeover last year by the GFG Alliance’s SIMEC and Liberty House businesses of the major hydro power and aluminium smelting operation near Fort William in Lochaber, from Rio Tinto. HIE noted this had safeguarded 164 jobs, and cited the GFG Alliance’s ambitious plans for the operation.
Charlotte Wright, interim chief executive of HIE, noted the Lochaber site was now the UK’s only aluminium smelter.
She noted plans by the GFG Alliance to invest in a manufacturing plant producing alloy wheels for the global automotive industry and potentially a sheet-rolling plant.
Ms Wright said of these plans: “The downstream developments could be much more significant – job numbers of 800 to some projections of up to 2,000 if they do a second phase.”
HIE also backed an investment by diabetes monitoring equipment specialist LifeScan at Inverness. And it supported investment by wind turbine tower manufacturer CS Wind at Machrihanish on the Kintyre peninsula.
Among smaller projects backed by HIE was an investment by life sciences company BASF Pharma that supported 16 jobs on Lewis.
Commenting on the figures for the year to March, Ms Wright said: “By any standard, these are a pretty impressive set of results for the Highlands and Islands. The job numbers are particularly high. That is reflecting some significant investments from some of our foreign-owned businesses. That is great to see. That is about demonstrating their confidence in the region, and for the future.”
She added: “In terms of what next for the region, and for next year, we do a business panel survey on a regular basis: it is a bit of a mixed picture, where we have businesses saying they are confident about their future but they are less confident about the economic outlook. Maybe that is not a surprise, given all of the uncertainties that have an impact on everyone at the moment.”
HIE chairman Lorne Crerar said: “It has been another year of encouraging progress. The continued oil and gas downturn, pressures on public sector budgets and uncertainties around EU membership have presented many challenges for the region.”