Caithness Economy

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 5:24 pm on 25th October 2006.

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Photo of Eleanor Scott Eleanor Scott Green 5:24 pm, 25th October 2006

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 decommissioning and is recognised probably worldwide as such.

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 am not talking about relocating personnel, which can be disruptive and has proved controversial in other cases. The personnel with the skills are already in Caithness; we simply need to relocate jobs or locate new Government jobs in the area. Caithness has the people with the necessary skills to do those jobs.

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.