Caithness Economy

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 5:03 pm on 25th October 2006.

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Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat 5:03 pm, 25th October 2006

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 represents no fewer than 714 households, 390 working spouses and partners and 450 children. Assuming that no alternative industries had come to the area in the past 50 years, the population of Caithness and Sutherland would have been around 1,821 lower than at present. Thank God that that did not happen. Thank God that the people who make up such vibrant communities in the far north stayed. That is why people in the far north are not swift to criticise Dounreay.

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 place to take things forward. Councillor David Flear has told me that he believes that the Scottish Executive has a crucial role, not least because organisations such as Highland Council and HIE are ultimately accountable to it. I agree with him, and for that reason I trust that the Deputy Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning will closely examine the study and recommendations. Perhaps he might even consider coming north and contributing to the conference that will arise from the document. By way of encouragement, I should tell him that some approaches have already been made to his colleagues in Westminster. He would be very welcome.

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- minded act of faith then, and that is what we need now, if we are to head off a return to the bleakness of the past. We can do it. Good work is being done, and it is time for all of us to get moving. I thank my colleagues.