Caithness Economy

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 5:20 pm on 25th October 2006.

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Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative 5:20 pm, 25th October 2006

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.