I thank Jamie Stone for the opportunity to discuss yet again the development of the Caithness and Sutherland economy. In my time in this job, I have taken a particular interest in the area and have listened with interest to, and noted the views of, the members who have taken part in the debate.
I fully acknowledge the significant challenges that face the local economy as a result of Dounreay's decommissioning—I am familiar with such challenges in my own neck of the woods. The challenges also bring with them opportunities for diversifying, developing and growing an economy that has been reliant on the nuclear industry for some years, as Jamie Stone pointed out. I firmly believe that those challenges must be met head on, with all the relevant bodies working closely together to ensure that everything possible is done, not only to support the on-going decommissioning process but to provide the necessary guidance and support for the establishment of replacement economic development and the associated employment that will come with it, so that it can be part of a vibrant and sustainable economy for the current population and for future generations in Caithness and Sutherland. That is a goal to which everyone in the chamber can subscribe, and I hope that we can all join forces, irrespective of party political affiliation or differences in policy direction, to commit ourselves fully to achieving that goal.
Evidence of that commitment, which was welcomed by Jamie Stone and Maureen Macmillan, came with Thursday's announcement by Highlands and Islands Enterprise that it is to invest an extra £12 million in the area. That is a 50 per cent increase—not insubstantial, as I am sure members will agree—on the current budget allocation, which will be used over the next three years to help to address the considerable
Government at all levels, its agencies, the private sector and the local community have a duty to work closely together to counter the effects of decommissioning. It is vital that we have in place as a prerequisite a clear and agreed strategy that is focused and informed, and that we have a vision for the economic future of the area. I therefore take the opportunity that this debate gives me to thank the Caithness socioeconomic strategy group for the work that it has put into "A Strategy for Caithness and North Sutherland", which it published on Monday. It is self-evident from the document that the group has put a lot of effort into engaging the local community in developing the strategy. There was a lot of consultation and involvement, which is fundamental to finding solutions to the challenges that I mentioned.
The strategy, which I and my officials will study closely, is a sound beginning and the partnership approach that it advocates is clearly sensible. I am confident that the HIE network, working with the NDA, the Highland Council and other partners, will now develop and undertake the action plan that is required to take the strategy forward.