The findings are included in a wide-ranging survey of the region’s businesses, commissioned by development agency Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) and published online.
Almost 70% of businesses who took part felt membership was important to the Scottish economy, including 39% who stated it was very important. The single market was judged unimportant by 23%, while seven per cent expressed no view.
Free movement of people was considered important by 75% of those surveyed, and unimportant by 19%.
The Highlands and Islands Business Panel was set up by HIE in 2008 to be a representative voice, matching the structure of the region’s business population in terms of sector, size and geographical distribution.
It now comprises more than 1,000 businesses and social enterprises of all sizes, located in every area of the Highlands and Islands, and covering a broad range of economic sectors.
The latest survey was conducted in April and May this year by Ipsos MORI. A total of 1,014 interviews with eligible businesses and social enterprises were held online and by telephone.
Some 78% of those who took part said they were optimistic about their own business performance in the next 12 months, while 20% were not.
Forty-three per cent anticipated that their businesses would grow in the coming year, while 44% expected to remain stable.
General economic confidence was less strong, however. Although 49% said their confidence in Scotland’s economic outlook had not changed over the past six months, 38% recorded a decrease, and just 11% felt more confident.
Increased confidence was higher among companies with 25 or more employees (20%), and tourism businesses (16%). The least confident were those working in the food and drink sector, where 46% felt less confident than six months before, or located in fragile areas (also 46%). Forty-one per cent of businesses employing four or fewer also reported a decline in confidence.
Asked to judge their own performance over the past 12 months, 38% said this had been steady. Thirty-one per cent had performed quite well, and nine per cent exceptionally well. Just over a fifth (22%) had struggled slightly (17%) or markedly (5%).
Sales and turnover had risen for 39%, and declined for 22%. Profits were up for 25%, and down for 30% of those surveyed.
Among exporting businesses, 57% reported that trade had been stable, 27% achieved an increase, and 12% experienced a decline.
Carroll Buxton, Director of Regional Development with Highlands and Islands Enterprise, said the business panel plays a vital role in shaping regional development.
“With so many members from a variety of enterprises in all parts of the region, the panel provides a genuine voice for the Highlands and Islands business community,” she said.
“The findings from these surveys are always interesting in their own right, but what really matters is how HIE and our partners can use the information they provide to align our economic development activities with what the region’s businesses themselves judge to be most important.
“The information is hugely valuable to inform our own actions as a development agency, and also to ensure that the views of the region’s businesses and social enterprises are being gathered and presented to national policy makers.
“Fieldwork is already under way for the next survey. We welcome interest from business people across the region who would like to join the panel, and would like to thank all those who are already members for sharing their views and their experience.”
The full report is available on the HIE website at www.hie.co.uk/businesspanel