Weekly Update, 7th March 2011

Energy:
Secretary of State for Scotland Michael Moore MP was asked by John Thurso MP during Scottish Questions at Westminster this week to support his calls for Caithness to become one of the UK’s first Marine Energy Parks. The coalition Government announced this idea recently, and there is a desire in the area to take the idea forward as a means of further emphasising the Pentland Firth’s role as the UK hub of marine energy development. You can read coverage of the story at http://www.pressandjournal.co.uk/Article.aspx/2171849?UserKey=

Business Services
Together with HIE, Highland Council and John Thurso MP I met staff from the HMRC Tax Office in Wick to discuss their present situation. The office is due to close in 2012, and staff are currently running a campaign to try to press the business case for retaining the facility, which employs 20 people. Highland Council and HIE submitted a strong case for the retention of the office during initial consultations by HMRC in 2008. The campaign for retention goes on, but in the meantime the staff at the Wick HMRC office will be offered support through the new “Make the Right Connections” skills transition programme I have previously described. It will, amongst other things, help staff to benchmark their range of work experience and previous formal/ informal learning against national standards, providing them with an up-to-date assessment of qualifications. Staff skills in the Wick office have also been fed into the ongoing inward investment research campaigns led by HIE, aimed at identifying opportunities to attract business services work to the area.

Tourism, food & drink:
Very welcome news this week has been approval by HIE of £1.8M in grant assistance to the redevelopment of John O’ Groats as a major visitor destination for the north. HIE support for the plans of Heritage GB and Natural Retreats will trigger a £6M first phase of work to redevelop the currently derelict hotel site to provide high quality self-catering accommodaiton facilities, and to create luxury self-catering lodges. There are also plans in this first phase to develop public spaces, revamp the Last House Museum, expand and upgrade the Journey’s End café and create a number of arts projects.

As mentioned in last week’s blog, HIE’s Rachel Skene has been leading a programme of work entitled “Ambitious for Tourism” to identify growth opportunities in tourism in Caithness and North Sutherland, and to agree methods of achieving this growth. I took part in a meeting of around 40 organisations and businesses involved in the programme this week in Thurso. There was a significant degree of consensus on key issues, and a real desire to make sure the area’s tourism businesses are able to compete effectively in the international tourism market. Inevitably the increasing costs of transport were highlighted, but the business opportunities to be derived from the roll-out of superfast broadband were also seen as a key future asset.  

Enabling Activities:
It is important that we are able to gauge the ongoing effects of decommissioning on our area, and assess the impacts of the work being done to help the local economy transition away from its dependence on Dounreay-related work. This week, with funding from HIE and DSRL, Grangeston consultants were commissioned to undertake a review of “the socio-economic impacts of Dounreay Decommissioning”. This will provide an update to the study carried out in 2006, and should let us see what changes have taken place within our economy since then. A final report will be ready by early June.

Communications:
I met with Iain Grant of Grant News Agency, who has worked on our behalf to bring together a number of stories featuring partnership activities. Iain is currently preparing a feature on local activities in the business services sector, along similar lines to the energy feature recent carried in the Caithness Courier, highlighting current and future opportunities in what CNSRP partners feel to be a priority area for us.   I have also been preparing a revised communications plan for the Partnership, to ensure we are able to communicate our key priorities, and progress on delivering them, to a wide range of local, regional and national audiences.