Weekly Update, 24th May

Workforce development issues have dominated this week’s activities. Following recent discussions on this subject several of us attended a workshop on European funding held in Thurso by HIPP (the body responsible for managing the EU Structural Funds in the Highlands & Islands). We were able to discuss our outline proposal with an HIPP adviser, and our aim of creating a programme of work that encompasses new entrants to the local labour market (eg apprentices in a range of disciplines), the re-skilling/ up-skilling of current workforces and  connecting with future employment opportunities was very positively received. Skills Development Scotland may be prepared to lead on a funding application for European funds. I have subsequently met with with a group of representatives from DSRL, NDA, Chamber and Skills Development Scotland to begin putting in place actions that will allow SDS to confirm its ability to lead, and will also allow a Stage 1 bid for funding to be submitted by a deadline of 18th June.

We recognised the need to address the issue of future availability and delivery of apprenticeships earlier this year, and the small group of local employers looking at this in the context of engineering apprenticeships met again this week. There was broad agreement that an overall programme that could also meet this group’s aims would be beneficial, so comments from the employers will be built into the outline description of the proposed programme.

I have mentioned the importance of vibrant town centres in previous updates, and the development of a programme aimed at supporting town-centre activities continues to be worked upon. The issue of town-centre retail was starkly illustrated this week at a Chamber-run meeting in Thurso, where Tesco representatives met with local retailers to outline plans for the Tesco store due to open next Spring at Thurso’s former Mart site. Retailers were very strongly of the opinion that the store’s opening (with more than twice the floorspace of its existing Thurso store) would have a negative impact on other traders. However, I asked Tesco representatives if they would consider working with local representatives, as they have in other areas of the country, to minimise the negative effect that the store’s retail offering might have on businesses such as cafes, butchers, bakers, fishmongers etc. We received fairly clear signals that this was possible, and I hope that town centre retailers will, through Caithness chamber of Commerce, be able to engage with Tesco as it plans the detailed retail offering in its store. Other towns in Scotland have successfully argued, for example, that new stores should not have cafes, butcheries, fish-counters etc if there are felt to be sufficient of these in existing town centres.

I brought back together the small group of businesses and bodies looking at our potential in the area of Digital Connectivity. As a result of the group’s discussions over the past six months HIE commissioned a study into the issue, and we met to look at the recommendations from that study. It is clear the the area has a level of potential connectivity significantly in excess of what we had previously believed. Most of this is available through a provider other than BT, so we have agreed to make more detailed contact with this company, and to bring together businesses with more significant connectivity needs so that we can build a case for making this enhanced connectivity available. In doing this I hope that by working with HIE and others a case can be made for this area becoming a pilot for how enhanced connectivity could be made to work for communities in rural areas in the UK.  

I met with the Business Development Manager for Babcock and the Managing Director of Babcock Nuclear. DSRL now sits within Babcock Nuclear and it very useful to be able to discuss what skills, experience and opportunities that this very significant Group of companies might offer in its role as the current Parent Body Organisation for Dounreay. The Babcock Dounreay Partnership is also one of the announced bidders in the Dounreay PBO competition. 

Finally, some advance notice of two events happening in the north next month. The Highland Opportunity Roadshows are opportunities to “Share experiences and find out more about the range of support available to start and grow your business. Join in a Question Time session facilitated by STV’s Nicola McAlley and put your questions to a panel of experts from Business Gateway, Enterprise Europe Scotland and local businesses who have valuable experience on a regional, national and international level.The events will feature a mini trade fair where businesses can showcase local products and services. Stands are limited and will be given on a first come, first served basis.” The dates for our area are: Dornoch, Thursday 17 June 2010 and Wick, Thursday 24 June 2010.