Caithness Economy

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 5:10 pm on 25th October 2006.

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Photo of Rob Gibson Rob Gibson Scottish National Party 5:10 pm, 25th October 2006

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 College in Thurso is well placed to do that work. I welcome what Jamie Stone said about sharing the potential with Aberdeen.

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.