Domestically, politics might be challenging, but the most pressing issue for the UK remains Brexit. As the UK’s leading business organisation, FSB has naturally sought to understand members’ hopes and fears so that we can represent them to the UK Government, helping to ensure that any threats are turned into opportunities.
The first issue that you’ve highlighted to us is the future supply of labour. Population sparsity and low unemployment mean that 41% of small Highland firms employs EU staff – the UK figure is only 20%. None of us know precisely what impact Brexit will have on our ability to import staff from Europe, but it might well be profound.
So FSB wants to see more done to prepare and encourage local young people to take up employment opportunities within this region; more affordable housing built for inbound workers from elsewhere in the UK; and for assistance to be given to help small businesses navigate immigration systems if forced to recruit from abroad.
You also tell us that you want investment in the essential infrastructure that supports local economies. The Highlands & Islands has benefited enormously from European funding in the past – everything from new roads and bridges to business support programmes (including agricultural subsidies) – and we want this to continue. Who will pay and how will schemes be run?
Trade agreements are also vital, as is the support provided by the public sector to help small businesses access overseas markets, and Brexit is also an opportunity to reduce and simplify the endless regulations that small businesses face on a daily basis.