THE CHALLENGES of running a small business in Scotland’s island communities were highlighted in the Scottish Parliament earlier this week.
David Richardson of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) and Highlands and Islands Enterprise’s Shetland manager Rachel Hunter both gave evidence to the parliament’s rural economy and connectivity committee on Wednesday.
Making the case for Scottish politicians and policy makers to do more to help and encourage talented local young people to remain on their islands, Richardson presented the findings of a recent FSB survey conducted throughout Scotland’s islands.
But of the 280 responses received by the organisation representing the interests of small businesses, only 12 came from Shetland.
Richardson said he was at a loss as to why so few businesses in Shetland had responded to the survey, when more than 100 had done so from Orkney.
The key findings of the survey were that travel cost and frequency, poor broadband provision, freight and parcel delivery charges as well as expensive housing all posed significant obstacles to running a business in an island location.
Meanwhile, four out of five of the few local businesses that responded said that the lack of suitably qualified staff was holding back their businesses.
One unnamed business owner said there were many challenges that affected Shetland more profoundly than rural parts of the mainland.
“Firstly it is very difficult for people on the mainland to understand just how isolated Shetland is. Although we have good lifeline links (albeit very, very expensive), the link with the mainland is tenuous,” the business owner said.
“These sort of things dictate that Shetland has to regard itself as a little country in its own right which has advantages but also disadvantages.
“One particular difficulty we have in our business is finding and keeping suitably qualified staff. Living on Shetland is not for everyone. You either love it or hate it but the only way you find out is by trying it.”
Another wrote: “Shetland is a busy place. It is run like a small country therefore we need to cater for all services here on the islands. For these services to take place people have to spend their money on the island.
“House prices are also getting so high that the danger is a greater percentage of people’s income is spent on their mortgage which goes straight to the bank and does not circulate in the local economy.”
Richardson added: “The prosperity of a local place is intertwined with the ongoing success of its local business community.
“While this rings true across the country as a whole, it is particularly true for Scotland’s island communities.
“Our survey work shows, perhaps unsurprisingly, that addressing shortfalls in digital and transport infrastructure, reducing freight costs and increasing the supply of houses are all top priorities for island firms, as is addressing their need for more skilled staff.”
Highlands and Islands Conservative list MSP Jamie Halcro Johnston, who hails from Orkney, said: “In the islands, we depend on the success of small businesses – but this survey by the Federation of Small Businesses shows that Scotland’s island communities are facing a number of barriers to their success.
“We need to see faster action on infrastructure, including broadband, as well as real investment in facilities for tourists, housing and skills to ensure that more people come to the islands to visit, live and work.
“Island businesses also have serious concerns about the decline of local services – and all levels of government should be working to ensure that these remain viable.”