Weekly Update, 15th March

I hosted a meeting this week with Dennis Malone, Chief Executive of the Highlands & Islands Partnership Programme. HIPP is the body tasked with managing the two European Structural Funds Programmes for the Highlands & Islands. These two Programmes (ERDF and ESF) have a combined value of €174 million and the Programmes last from 2007-2013. I invited representatives from Caithness Chamber of Commerce, HIE, NDA, Highland Council and DSRL and we had a very constructive discussion on how our regeneration programme activities might fit with priorities identified within the two Structural Fund Programmes. Following useful advice from Dennis Malone a small group will now identify key opportunities to attract European project funding to support our efforts.

Later the same day I attended a meeting of local companies, North Highland College and Skills Development Scotland. The meeting was convened by Helen Mackay of T3UK to discuss how apprenticeships might best be encouraged in our area in the future. It was another very positive discussion, and focused on what the barriers might be to increasing the number and quality of apprenticeships achieved. It was agreed that a “joined up” approach was urgently needed. Helen Mackay has agreed to co-ordinate company views, and I hope that as a result a programme of work can be agreed.

The Partnership’s Advisory Board, chaired by Highland Council Convener Sandy Park, met today. Members heard an update presentation from Duncan Mackay of The Crown Estate following the announcement of the Pentland Firth Round One awards on Tuesday. I also presented an update report that focused on the regeneration programme we have worked on, and what its potential employment impacts would be. Members advised that whilst our long-term focus must remain on securing new employment opportunities, there is a clear shorter term requirement to help maintain current employment in the area as recession continues to affect the economy.

The announcement by The Crown Estate of the awards made in Round One of its Pentland Firth & Orkney Waters programme has received huge global publicity following the events in Wick, Kirkwall and Edinburgh on Tuesday. Caithness Chamber of Commerce hosted a business breakfast sponsored by Subsea 7 on Tuesday morning at which several of the successful bidders were present and spoke positively about opportunities for the local supply chain. The announcement event itself was led by Crown Estate Chief Executive Roger Bright, with contributions from Cllr Lady Thurso, HIE’s Sandra McCaughey, John Thurso MP and Cllr Sandy Park. It was a well-attended event, and it was good to have such senior-level participation from organisations such as the Highland Council. Many people have described this as a milestone event. From a Regeneration Partnership perspective it is exactly that: we now know the names of the successful Round One award-winners, and can concentrate on understanding their plans, their business needs, and the opportunities we can seize.  Next week Trudy Morris (Caithness Chamber of Commerce) and I will sit down with local supply chain companies to begin discussing developer procurement plans and what might need to be done to ensure Caithness is ready to do business with this industry.

Finally, I met with HIE’s Claire Conway and Lucy Parsons from Orkney Islands Council to discuss the follow-up work required to deliver the wave & tidal element of the National Renewables Infrastructure Plan. Claire and Lucy are beginning work on this and will be seeking local views as they make progress.