Caithness Economy

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 5:29 pm on 25th October 2006.

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Photo of Jim Mather Jim Mather Scottish National Party 5:29 pm, 25th October 2006

I, too, congratulate Jamie Stone on securing the debate, and I back the Caithness and north Sutherland socioeconomic strategy. It is a sound strategy, in that it can be summarised in the nicely concise and straightforward objective of increasing the number of working age people who work in

"the Dounreay travel to work area".

Its three strands—developing new and existing businesses, maintaining and enhancing public services and ensuring that the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority plays a full and responsible role—are all sound.

We all agree that Caithness's future could be very much brighter. Given that it is on the same latitude as prosperous Denmark and Finland and is further south than prosperous Norway and Sweden, we should ask ourselves what is different about its situation. That leads me to the strategic solution that we must level the playing field not only between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom but between Caithness and the rest of Scotland.

However, we live in the real world and must come up now with the tactical solutions for which our people are impatient. The Government must lead on and take ownership of the issue; for example, it should press ahead with boosting the travel infrastructure and sharpen its pencil in respect of matters such as business rates, which would allow the creation of more of the indigenous businesses that many members have been calling for.

Moreover, the Government should consider its approach to civil service relocation. Although, historically, such relocations have been triggered only when leases have come up for renewal, we should follow Ireland's brave example and look for volunteers who want to live in the north of Scotland, move them there and create the infrastructure around them. Perhaps foreign direct investment could be skewed towards areas such as Caithness, where the skills already exist, in order to attract other people to the area. Caithness should also be made a priority area for high-speed broadband in order to encourage more people who work remotely to live in that neck of the woods.

The north could also be made a priority area for research and development—Finland has been very successful with such an approach. It has been able to educate talented staff in the north of the country, retain that intellectual component and use quality-of-life arguments to attract many more people to the area.

In asking the Government to take leadership of the issue, I am keen that all assets—including renewables and the impressive list that Jamie McGrigor set out—be reviewed, recorded and leveraged in to ensure that we have a community-based recovery that plays to the area's undoubtedly huge strengths.

Maureen Macmillan and I have just got back from Donegal, where there are many lessons for us to learn. For example, we could follow its lead by skipping investment in industrial parks and moving straight to service parks. By doing so, we could match the quality of staff that is on offer there, achieve the lower staff turnover that has been achieved in Donegal and, because of that quality and continuity of staff, ensure that work can be transferred to the area from other places and parts of the world. Indeed, we might even see phenomena such as community-owned nursing homes and tourism businesses.

Let me make a practical suggestion. In a previous life, I worked at IBM UK with Sir Anthony Cleaver, who is the chairman of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. I have contacted him and he has expressed his willingness to meet. I ask Jamie Stone and the minister to join me in inviting him north to Parliament to address the matter and find out what is needed to make real the vision of a university of decommissioning and to turn it into a centre of excellence.

As Maureen Macmillan pointed out, in the long term we need a broadly based and diverse economy, because a diverse economy is a prerequisite for a strong economy and a strong society. Of course, that was said in 1776 by none other than Alexander Hamilton, the first United States Secretary of the Treasury. He was right then and his words are right now. We should get behind Caithness in making that possible.