UK: BT trial puts heart into Highlands.

UK: BT trial puts heart into Highlands. - "We've got a window, and in the next six months we have to make an impression or that window will go." Archie McCreevy throws back a wee shot of whisky, basking in the warm sun over Loch Fyne, as far-off London s

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

"We've got a window, and in the next six months we have to make an impression or that window will go." Archie McCreevy throws back a wee shot of whisky, basking in the warm sun over Loch Fyne, as far-off London sneezes its way through another chilly day. As a representative of Highlands and Islands Enterprise, he is referring to the Scottish district's unique standing as the first region in the UK to get British Telecom's new ISDN system.

What does it mean? Simply that data can now be passed down telephone lines in massive quantities at a drastically reduced price. Combined with the lower costs of property and labour in Scotland, McCreevy argues that this new facility makes the wide-open spaces of the Highlands the ideal place for new "back room" offices for city firms.

By "back room" he means any data processing function, such as billing, which can now be done cheaply at a distance from head office. The big Dutch publisher Elsevier has already set up such a function through the Scottish firm Highland Data. The Dutch group sends thousands of manuscripts to Scotland on line. These are then passed on via computers to specialist editors working at home all over Scotland. Another Scottish company has imaginatively set up a secretarial bureau to handle London firms' work at a distance - for £3 an hour, rather than the £7 plus expected by the Chelsea set.

Although British Telecom is now quickly installing ISDN in major cities, McCreevy says that it will be four years before any other rural area gets it. Which gives the little-heeded area its "window of opportunity" to compete for the many disillusioned firms now trooping out of the overpriced South-east.

In other respects, what is on offer in the Highlands and Islands is a pretty mixed bag. Companies like speciality foods group Arran Provisions and suit-maker Jaeger, both on the isle of Arran, have grown strong. Indeed, Arran finds that its own success is its biggest problem: housing shortages make new labour hard to find. In other areas this is far less of a problem. The failure of two big industrial plants has left a large body of skilled workers. Transport too is not the problem some might imagine. McCreevy says that the large numbers of trucks seeking loads back to the centre make haulage a very economic business.

When you ask companies like Midton Acrylics and Flexible Technology why they are there, lifestyle and the dedicated workforce appear very high on the list. But it is economics and another sort of freedom which cut most ice with newcomers. McCreevy's Government-backed group dispenses with over £70 million a year in incentives - yet shrinks away from taking equity. "It gives them control," he says stoutly. And for the many who go to the Highlands, it would seem that control is what it is all about.

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