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The social economy - the part of the economy based on voluntary and non-profit distributing activity - in the Highlands and Islands has grown by 35 per cent since 1996 comprising over 8,000 organisations and generating an annual income of some 360 million.

The social economy covers a wide range of activities including housing, arts and culture, music, business and employment support, community development, education, environment, health care, religion, social care, social groups, sport and lifeboat/mountain rescue.

According to the survey commissioned by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), the housing related sector accounts for the greatest proportion of full-time employment and the highest level of paid employment. Housing, education and social groups also show a rapid growth in income.

The findings of the study are revealed today (Wednesday 29th May) as delegates meet in Inverness to discuss housing, economic and community development in the Highlands and Islands. The event, jointly hosted by HIE and Communities Scotland, aims to enhance partnership working between Local Enterprise Companies (LECs) and Housing Associations.

Director of strengthening communities at HIE Stuart Black said: "It is encouraging to see that the social economy of the Highlands and Islands is playing an increasingly important role in the economy of the region as a whole. However the key requirements for further improvement in the social economy are strong relationships and partnership working among the various supporting organisations and social economy groups, along with better funding and skills development opportunities.

"Events like today's seminar involving the local enterprise companies and housing associations are a valuable way of exchanging information and good practice. We hope events in the future will result in improved partnership working with an increasing focus on the development of the social economy."
Heather Koronka, director of regeneration for Communities Scotland, said: "The agency recognises the vital role the social economy has to play in community regeneration. There are many examples of good practice throughout Scotland and events like this provide excellent opportunities to share information and ideas to help plan for the future."

The assessment of the social economy of the Highlands and Islands was carried out by SQW and Simon Clark Associates. The study analysed organisations in terms of their structures and activities, their beneficiaries, wages, employment, income and growth, barriers to further development and support and linkages with other organisations.

With regards to incomes, the majority of funding for organisations comes from trading services or products, including fees and membership charges. Grants from local authorities, LECs, lottery and national or EU sources represent 21 per cent of income with the largest recipients of grants being arts, music and culture groups.

For the majority of organisations, the single most important issue is funding. This is identified by 56 per cent of organisations as being the most useful type of support they receive and the availability of funding is seen as the biggest barrier to growth (55 per cent). The availability of volunteers and premises are also seen as barriers especially for more socially orientated groups.

A major issue for the development of the social economy is the strength of relationships between organisations and local authorities, LECs, schools and so on. The survey discovered the strongest links exist between the organisations and their local authority and LEC.

Other key findings are:
- The social economy employs 6,250 people on a full-time basis and 12,900 people on a part-time basis with 100,000 volunteering opportunities.
- Less than half the organisations in the survey do not employ any paid staff.
- 71 per cent of organisations say the activities and services they provide are aimed at improving the quality of life in local communities rather than specific groups.
- 54 per cent of organisations receive charitable status with the vast majority of groups being local and independent with 25 per cent belonging to a Scottish or UK-wide organisation.
More detailed information on the survey can be found on the HIE website, www.hie.co.uk/ecorep.html