Caithness Economy

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 5:16 pm on 25th October 2006.

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Photo of Maureen Macmillan Maureen Macmillan Labour 5:16 pm, 25th October 2006

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 attention was being paid to the seriousness of the situation and that significant investment and commitment were needed from government at local, Scottish and United Kingdom levels to attract new industry. I believe that we now have that investment in the £12 million that will come through HIE. It is important that that money is invested wisely, with all stakeholders working together. We must be assured that there is sufficient capacity and expertise locally, as well as sound leadership, to take matters forward. In the past, there was rivalry between agencies, which did Caithness no good. That must not happen again.

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 skills, abilities and perseverance to build a good future, and I am sure that with proper support they will do just that.