The final item of business today is a members' business debate on motion S2M-4888, in the name of Jamie Stone, on the Caithness economy post-Dounreay. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.
That the Parliament notes the severe economic and social challenges for the far north presented by the accelerated run-down and decommissioning at Dounreay and considers that the Scottish Executive should work with the UK Government and other key players to ensure that a costed and funded strategy is put in place as soon as possible so that suitable replacement industries and jobs can be established for the years to come.
I thank all those colleagues who were good enough to sign the motion.
Before the mid-1950s, when the nuclear industry first came to Caithness, the far north had witnessed the dismal story of continual depopulation. The young were steadily leaving their homeland to seek employment and homes far away to the south. Depopulation was a wretched curse on Caithness and other parts of the Highlands that previous generations had come wearily to accept. Indeed, over the years, my own family steadily moved away. I can remember my father telling me that it was better for me to get up and go, as there would be nothing at home for me.
Dounreay changed all that for Caithness and much of Sutherland. One has only to visit communities such as Thurso, Halkirk and Castletown in Caithness and Melvich, Bettyhill and the crofts in Strath Halladale in Sutherland to see how Dounreay enabled local indigenous people to stay and prosper in the places where they were born. It was a change that succeeding generations have come to bless. In more ways than one, Dounreay kept the lights on.
Now, however, decommissioning is upon us, and the site is being taken apart. Today, approximately 2,000 work at Dounreay on a daily basis, and a large number of people outwith the site have jobs that would not exist were it not for Dounreay. When we consider that a base impact study found that Dounreay made purchases in Caithness and Sutherland of some £68 million in 2005-06, we can see the force of the argument.
It has been calculated that, were it not for Dounreay—if it had never existed—about 790 of the current United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority employees would not be living and working in Caithness and Sutherland. That figure
However, as I say, decommissioning is upon us. I have a graph to hand that shows that the job numbers are dropping already, and recently we have even seen an acceleration in the trend. People are leaving the area now—drawn by other industries that are perceived to have better long-term prospects and because of uncertainty about the future economic situation in Caithness. By the mid-2020s, essentially all the 2,000 jobs at Dounreay will be gone. We see the possibility that a terrible shadow could yet revisit present and future generations. That is the backdrop to my motion.
People are working hard on the problem. Sitting in the public gallery today are Councillor David Flear, chairman of the Caithness area committee, and Willie Swanson and John Crowden, who represent the trade unions at Dounreay. They and others have done a power of work to achieve the study—and its recommendations—that I have in my hand. It is a deliberately positively-titled document called "A Socio-Economic Study: Opportunities Arising from the Decommissioning of Dounreay". It pulled together the key players, including UKAEA and the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, and I deliberately bring it to the attention of colleagues this evening because it is, in my opinion, an accurate and detailed assessment of where we are. More important, it contains closely argued pointers as to what we should all do.
The danger is this: worthy words, worthy dialogue and worthy consideration are one thing, but people now expect to see action. By that, I mean hard cash and a visible effort in the marketing and building—in a bricks-and-mortar sense—of infrastructure and facilities that will attract employers and businesses that could utilise the skills that we already have in the area. People hope and trust that they will see that action with their own eyes. Accordingly, I welcome Highlands and Islands Enterprise's recent announcements. Some £12 million has been put on the table, along with four people—a dedicated staff. However, that is just a beginning.
I should make one point. In the study's recommendations, it is pointed out that there is still some work to be done on the exact structure at the top of the organisation that I expect to see in
In the document, there are many worthy pointers as to how we can create replacement jobs, but I wish to flag up two possibilities in particular.
It is no flight of fancy to say that Dounreay has the potential to become the university of decommissioning—a world centre as important to the nuclear industry as other universities are in their own fields. At Janetstown and in Thurso, we can see what has already been done—cutting-edge research and technology that is way out in front. By building on that and developing other associated skills such as robotics, which I have mentioned previously, why should not Dounreay reach out far beyond Caithness?
I am also deliberately bidding for the proposed national energies technology institute that is the brainchild of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown. The institute, or part of it, could and should be located at Dounreay. Its proximity to oilfields, to the nuclear site and to renewable energy resources gives it a geographical ace of spades. I know that this is a matter close to the heart of my friend and colleague Richard Baker, but I do not see why our cases should be mutually exclusive. I believe that we could work together for the betterment of both our constituencies. There is enormous potential arising from the tidal resources in the Pentland firth. I will leave it to my good friend and colleague Maureen Macmillan to expand on that in her speech.
I say to members tonight that I would not have stayed in the north, worked in the north and brought up my children in the north if I had not been employed for some years at the Nigg yard. Twenty years after Dounreay, Nigg, Kishorn, Sullom Voe and the smelter at Invergordon did the same for other parts of the Highlands as Dounreay did for Caithness. It took a leap of faith by a previous generation and by politicians and industry at the time to make those things happen. I do not deny that some industries came and went, but it was nevertheless an act of courage and of the highest motives to attract and support those industries in order to protect and enhance the fragile economy of the Highlands. It was a high-
I back to the hilt the Caithness and north Sutherland socioeconomic strategy. Calls for a supremo to drive forward the vision in the document have yet to be accepted, but as Jamie Stone—whom we thank for securing this debate—said, we really must sort out the issue. Although the strategy has been chaired by John Thurso MP, it needs a leader with the powers to order the partners to deliver. The Scottish National Party sees the strategy as having a far greater impact on Caithness than the closure of Ravenscraig had on Lanarkshire, for example. That is how important it is.
I venture to say that the Scottish ministers should take on the supremo role in promoting plans for the sustainable future of the far north. At present the split between the powers of the Scottish Government and those of the London Government is a definite hindrance. Nevertheless, the Scottish ministers cannot escape their ultimate responsibility to help the far north to flourish. In the short time that is available to me, I will suggest three immediate priorities that could help us along and could form the basis of a very public campaign. All those issues could be decided here in Scotland right now.
First, we need a highly vocal campaign to upgrade our transport services to and from the far north. We need a 21st century railway, including realistic costings for a Dornoch link—such costings have yet to be established independently. There must be an end to the divisions at all levels in the community south of Golspie and in the Highlands and Islands strategic transport partnership, and there must be a positive commitment from Government. The age of climate change in which we live is also the age of the train. The four-hour journey to Inverness is the longest and slowest in the UK, on the poorest rolling stock. It is a modern disgrace. An upgraded railway is needed alongside various programmed road improvements, such as improvements in the Berriedale braes—not one or the other.
Secondly, we need a commitment from HIE and from the Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning to back a centre of excellence based in Caithness. The SNP has long believed that we should be able to export nuclear decommissioning skills and to co-operate with the European Marine Energy Centre in Orkney to promote wave and tidal power in the Pentland firth. North Highland
Thirdly, we need to campaign for enhanced local powers to make decisions in Caithness. Indeed, when the new multimember wards are set up, we will need decisions to be made in Caithness, with some budget allocated to the local government structure. We should be aiming for that.
Dornoch and Golspie need commuters on the rail service, and it would be an act of faith if the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and UKAEA made some small but tangible gesture of their corporate social responsibility. The Dornoch link action group has secured £5,000 to commission a study by rail consultants that will examine the link's potential. All that we need is another £5,000. Surely, those big bodies can find that for us. That is a small challenge with which to end my speech.
We need a Caithness strategy that thinks big. I believe that members from all parties want that to happen, and I await with interest the ministerial response to these suggestions.
I congratulate Jamie Stone on securing the debate and I welcome the chance to discuss the future of the Caithness economy, which, as we know, has been heavily reliant on Dounreay. I had cousins who went to Dounreay in the 1950s, and their children and grandchildren are still in Caithness. They have worked in Dounreay and are now working on the decommissioning.
The accelerating rate of decommissioning, which was unexpected, means that within 20 years a workforce of thousands will have dropped to a handful. Well before that date, we must have high-calibre alternative employment available to make use of the highly skilled and talented workforce. We must give a commitment that the engineering and scientific skills that have been built up over the past 50 years will not be lost but will be used to regenerate the Caithness economy, building up through North Highland College world-beating expertise in decommissioning that we can export—something that Jamie Stone mentioned. That should be our top priority.
There has, of course, already been diversification. ABSL Power Solutions Ltd, the battery plant, employs 78 people. It was opened around five years ago—by the Deputy Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning himself—and recently won a $5 million contract with the United States Government. That success could be replicated in other industries that depend on the same sort of skills. The criticism was made—not least by the Labour party locally—that not enough
I note that that investment is being spoken of as an initial contribution and that there will be further investment as appropriate. I hope that some of that investment will be in renewable energy. Caithness is in a prime position to benefit from both wind and marine energy. We need only think about the power of the Pentland firth to see what is possible. Whether that benefit comes from generation, manufacture or research, there are enough enthusiasts in Caithness to make it happen. Maximum community benefit is paramount; indeed, community ownership of renewables would generate funds that could be reinvested in the local economy. I recommend heavy investment in such renewables schemes.
We must try to create as broad an employment base as we can. I recommend investment also in the environmental research institute in Thurso. It is beginning to see the commercial application of its research and is an excellent institution. There was a report in the John O'Groat Journal last week about the initiative to promote Caithness archaeology. I believe that the archaeology of Caithness is a match for the famous sites in the northern isles and could prove as much of a tourist attraction. In addition, I make a plea for recognition of the fossil heritage of Caithness, which surely merits its own museum and interpretation centre.
Others have spoken of transport needs, but no amount of straightening of the roads or railway lines will cut journey times significantly. We need frequent, low-cost flights from Wick to Scotland's major cities, including—and especially—Aberdeen. If the aspiration to be part of the proposed energy institute is to be realised, Caithness must build strong links with Aberdeen.
The best businesses, however, are home-grown. I note the consultation that has already taken place with local people to seek out innovative ideas either from private individuals or community groups. The regeneration project cannot be a top-down operation; it must engage the grass roots. It is important to build self-confidence in Caithness communities. At present, they are fearful of the future, but they have the
I, too, congratulate Jamie Stone on bringing the debate to the chamber. It is a subject of enormous importance in the far north. One in five jobs in Caithness depends in some way on Dounreay, and Dounreay creates 10 per cent of the economic output of the north Highlands area. It generates £80 million for the local economy, so it is still a very big player in the Scottish economy.
I have visited Dounreay on different occasions in the past and have often been sent briefings by the company. The Scottish Executive must not be ostrich-like; it must face up to the fact that there will be significant job losses in future. In this case, the Executive has the advantage of time to plan for alternative industries and employment sources. That would not be the case if some private company went bankrupt and shut down. In the case of Dounreay, the future is visible on the horizon and can be planned for. It does not, however, give me great confidence to hear that Caithness and Sutherland had the worst record in the HIE area for new business start-ups in 2004-05.
We must ask whether HIE is the right vehicle through which to pass the many millions of pounds that will be needed to reinforce Caithness's economic infrastructure. Small and growing businesses will need direct help. Has the minister considered approaching the chancellor to see whether it would be possible to institute tax breaks in this sort of situation? Perhaps he could remove some of his 84 stealth taxes. There is no reason why Caithness should not prosper; it already has a highly skilled and professional workforce. There are two deepwater ports that have not yet been exploited to their full potential. There is the North Highland College and there is still a strong agricultural industry, if it is allowed to survive. Thurso is also famous for its veterinary skills and services.
There are also good engineering companies such as Dunbeath Engineering Ltd, which makes a range of workholding products for the world market. That company is growing at 15 to 20 per cent per annum. It exports goods to China and 30 per cent of its business goes to local subcontractors. It is a high-tech company that fulfils a need for high-tech precision engineering.
Kongsberg Simrad in Wick makes underwater cameras, sonar systems, and echo sounders. In Castleton, Icetech Freezers Ltd specialises in low-cost refrigeration. We should not forget JGC
Engineering, the experts in decommissioning work whose experience at Dounreay will hopefully lead to sales of its technology to other firms in other parts of the world.
On 10 October, HRH Princess Anne opened Britain's first purpose-built nuclear clean-up testing, training and research centre at Dounreay, and that is an exciting development. The decommissioning of Dounreay should breed experts who will have the potential to make this country a world leader in decommissioning. That could be one silver lining in the cloud, mentioned by Jamie Stone, that might hang over Dounreay.
Like many other companies all over rural Scotland, those companies need a good infrastructure to let them prosper and grow. Dualling the A9 from Perth to Inverness and improving the rest of the A9 to the far north would help dramatically, as would the removal of business red tape and a reduction in business rates.
With its links to Orkney, Caithness is a beautiful, clean area and a wonderful place in which to live. It has good business and tourism potential, and great amenity through its rich trout and salmon fisheries. It is environmentally a hugely important area with much flora and fauna, and it has the ability to produce good food from some very rich land. However, to continue to attract people of the calibre that currently live and work there, it is vital that there are good health services, including a hospital with a maternity unit, and good schools, good roads and decent air services.
I am delighted to get the chance to speak in this debate, which I very much welcome. I am glad that its tone has been relatively positive and not too depressing. Caithness has a great deal going for it. Tonight's debate should be seen not as a cry for help for a place that is suffering, but as a recognition that the area has a great deal to offer.
As "A Strategy for Caithness and North Sutherland" points out, it is clear that the Government's decision many years ago to site the fast reactor at Dounreay fundamentally changed the area's socioeconomic make-up for ever.
I speak as one who has been critical of Dounreay. I was critical not of the skilled and committed workforce but of the philosophy of nuclear power—although that is a debate for another time—and, sometimes, of the management and practices at Dounreay. Fortunately, I do not need to be critical now, as Dounreay is now a beacon of excellence in
Other parts of the Highlands and Islands have similar experience of big developments that have changed the area for ever, but the difference with Dounreay is that the reactor was purely the result of deliberate Government policy and was not simply a commercial decision. Hence, Government has a responsibility to see the thing through, up to and including the exit strategy and beyond that. To ask for Government funding to help Caithness post Dounreay is entirely reasonable, given that the problem was instigated by the Government in the first place.
According to current figures, we have 30 years until the number of Dounreay employees is reduced to a handful. The time involved may even be less than 30 years, but that is much longer than we normally get to plug the hole that is left when a major employer in the north closes down.
Any economic development strategy that relies heavily on attracting inward investment will always be vulnerable to the possibility that another big hole will be left if that major employer closed down. Therefore, I am glad to see that the Caithness and north Sutherland strategy does not focus solely on attracting new inward investment but refers to the need to grow local businesses, some of which have been mentioned by other members.
Talking about growing businesses that have roots in the area, we know that the local agricultural sector is still thriving. Value is being added to agricultural processes through developments such as the Mey selections brand and the forthcoming reopening of the Wick abattoir. We also know that the area has potential for renewables developments, such as in biomass and the district heating system that has been proposed for Wick. That system could become a model for other areas to adopt.
Inevitably, tourism should be mentioned. Maureen Macmillan referred to her favourite fossils and I want to mention my favourite flow country. Once the area receives its much deserved accolade as a world heritage site, its status will increase as one of the string of pearls that brings visitors to Caithness to see what it has to offer.
I agree with Maureen Macmillan and others that we need as broad a base as possible for the future Caithness economy, but I am surprised that—despite the fact that this is mentioned in the strategy and that everyone could sign up to it—nobody else has mentioned the possibility of relocating Government jobs to Caithness. Part of Government's obligation is to ensure that, where it is possible to do so, it locates its own jobs there. I
In the short time remaining, I want to mention that the UHI Millennium Institute—the university of the Highlands and Islands—should have links with Dounreay's centre of expertise and excellence in Janetstown, which I have visited. The skills that are developed there will be needed worldwide. Despite the recent minor setback, the institute is expected to gain full university status shortly. The centre of excellence should become part of the university's network of centres of learning across the north. I also agree with other speakers on the need to focus on renewable energy, for which there is huge potential in Caithness.
Finally, communication links are obviously needed everywhere, but they are a live issue in more peripheral areas—although the people of Caithness might not see it that way. We need to look at modern methods. To rely on air travel is not admissible in this age of climate change. We should invest in genuinely modern communication methods, such as videoconferencing and improved telecommunications, so that people can communicate with the rest of the world without having to fly elsewhere for face-to-face meetings. We need to invest in that sort of technology, although I agree that we also need to improve the rail link.
I, too, congratulate Jamie Stone on securing the debate, and I back the Caithness and north Sutherland socioeconomic strategy. It is a sound strategy, in that it can be summarised in the nicely concise and straightforward objective of increasing the number of working age people who work in
"the Dounreay travel to work area".
Its three strands—developing new and existing businesses, maintaining and enhancing public services and ensuring that the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority plays a full and responsible role—are all sound.
We all agree that Caithness's future could be very much brighter. Given that it is on the same latitude as prosperous Denmark and Finland and is further south than prosperous Norway and Sweden, we should ask ourselves what is different about its situation. That leads me to the strategic solution that we must level the playing field not only between Scotland and the rest of the United
However, we live in the real world and must come up now with the tactical solutions for which our people are impatient. The Government must lead on and take ownership of the issue; for example, it should press ahead with boosting the travel infrastructure and sharpen its pencil in respect of matters such as business rates, which would allow the creation of more of the indigenous businesses that many members have been calling for.
Moreover, the Government should consider its approach to civil service relocation. Although, historically, such relocations have been triggered only when leases have come up for renewal, we should follow Ireland's brave example and look for volunteers who want to live in the north of Scotland, move them there and create the infrastructure around them. Perhaps foreign direct investment could be skewed towards areas such as Caithness, where the skills already exist, in order to attract other people to the area. Caithness should also be made a priority area for high-speed broadband in order to encourage more people who work remotely to live in that neck of the woods.
The north could also be made a priority area for research and development—Finland has been very successful with such an approach. It has been able to educate talented staff in the north of the country, retain that intellectual component and use quality-of-life arguments to attract many more people to the area.
In asking the Government to take leadership of the issue, I am keen that all assets—including renewables and the impressive list that Jamie McGrigor set out—be reviewed, recorded and leveraged in to ensure that we have a community-based recovery that plays to the area's undoubtedly huge strengths.
Maureen Macmillan and I have just got back from Donegal, where there are many lessons for us to learn. For example, we could follow its lead by skipping investment in industrial parks and moving straight to service parks. By doing so, we could match the quality of staff that is on offer there, achieve the lower staff turnover that has been achieved in Donegal and, because of that quality and continuity of staff, ensure that work can be transferred to the area from other places and parts of the world. Indeed, we might even see phenomena such as community-owned nursing homes and tourism businesses.
Let me make a practical suggestion. In a previous life, I worked at IBM UK with Sir Anthony Cleaver, who is the chairman of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. I have contacted him
As Maureen Macmillan pointed out, in the long term we need a broadly based and diverse economy, because a diverse economy is a prerequisite for a strong economy and a strong society. Of course, that was said in 1776 by none other than Alexander Hamilton, the first United States Secretary of the Treasury. He was right then and his words are right now. We should get behind Caithness in making that possible.
I thank Jamie Stone for the opportunity to discuss yet again the development of the Caithness and Sutherland economy. In my time in this job, I have taken a particular interest in the area and have listened with interest to, and noted the views of, the members who have taken part in the debate.
I fully acknowledge the significant challenges that face the local economy as a result of Dounreay's decommissioning—I am familiar with such challenges in my own neck of the woods. The challenges also bring with them opportunities for diversifying, developing and growing an economy that has been reliant on the nuclear industry for some years, as Jamie Stone pointed out. I firmly believe that those challenges must be met head on, with all the relevant bodies working closely together to ensure that everything possible is done, not only to support the on-going decommissioning process but to provide the necessary guidance and support for the establishment of replacement economic development and the associated employment that will come with it, so that it can be part of a vibrant and sustainable economy for the current population and for future generations in Caithness and Sutherland. That is a goal to which everyone in the chamber can subscribe, and I hope that we can all join forces, irrespective of party political affiliation or differences in policy direction, to commit ourselves fully to achieving that goal.
Evidence of that commitment, which was welcomed by Jamie Stone and Maureen Macmillan, came with Thursday's announcement by Highlands and Islands Enterprise that it is to invest an extra £12 million in the area. That is a 50 per cent increase—not insubstantial, as I am sure members will agree—on the current budget allocation, which will be used over the next three years to help to address the considerable
Government at all levels, its agencies, the private sector and the local community have a duty to work closely together to counter the effects of decommissioning. It is vital that we have in place as a prerequisite a clear and agreed strategy that is focused and informed, and that we have a vision for the economic future of the area. I therefore take the opportunity that this debate gives me to thank the Caithness socioeconomic strategy group for the work that it has put into "A Strategy for Caithness and North Sutherland", which it published on Monday. It is self-evident from the document that the group has put a lot of effort into engaging the local community in developing the strategy. There was a lot of consultation and involvement, which is fundamental to finding solutions to the challenges that I mentioned.
The strategy, which I and my officials will study closely, is a sound beginning and the partnership approach that it advocates is clearly sensible. I am confident that the HIE network, working with the NDA, the Highland Council and other partners, will now develop and undertake the action plan that is required to take the strategy forward.
I met representatives of the NDA in connection with my previous responsibilities under the environment and rural development portfolio, within which sponsorship of the issue arose. I shall go on in my conclusion to address the issue that Mr Mather raises.
There is no doubt that the Dounreay decommissioning process will provide major and diverse opportunities for innovation and employment. The objective to which I have referred is to provide a basis for sustainable growth, which will help to deliver the vision of a post-Dounreay economy that includes good-quality employment, a stable population and good public services—three aims to which all members can subscribe. That objective will include improving productivity and competitiveness through innovation and effective development and deployment of skills.
To attract new industries and jobs to Caithness, the workforce requires the necessary skills to enter new industries. The UHI Millennium Institute and its academic partner North Highland College, to which Jamie Stone and others referred, are at the forefront of delivering the training opportunities that will provide people with the skills that they need to realise their full potential and to play their
Jamie Stone invited me to Caithness which, as he knows, I have visited three times in the past 18 months or thereabouts. I am always glad to go there. The last time I was there, I was—happily—a spectator of, rather than a participant in, a game of knotty, which I think could be called a local sport. If it would help, I am happy to assist.
I have always said—and I agree with it—that our vision for Dounreay should be that of a world-renowned nuclear centre of excellence. Unlike some members, I do not one believe that the nuclear industry's future lies behind it. As members are aware, I am a well-known exponent of the industry and of the vital role that I think it will continue to play, not least in combating climate change, which has been mentioned over the piece.
Our main challenge is to ensure that we have in place a focused, effective and robust socioeconomic plan for Caithness. That will involve the centre of excellence. The NDA adopts a hub-and-spoke model for higher education: the hub is in north-west England and the Scottish spoke is in Thurso.
Maureen Macmillan talked about renewable energy. The NDA hosted a recent meeting on tidal power and we have planned a meeting with the NDA soon to consider how to bring the two sides together.
Everybody must work together. If having an Executive representative directly involved would help, I would fully support that, and I stand ready to help. HIE has committed resources, as Jamie Stone and others said. Other parties also stand ready to make such a contribution. I assure members that I stand ready to do anything I can to assist in achieving the objective.