John O’Groat Journal contribution, 19th July 2013

In 2005/06 the UKAEA and Highlands and Islands Enterprise jointly commissioned a report into the economic impact of Dounreay on the area’s economy. The report highlighted the extent to which dependence on Dounreay-related work continued to be important to the area’s economy. It also recommended that as decommissioning progressed a more concerted and coordinated effort would be required to address the impact of the Dounreay site’s eventual closure.

This led directly to the creation in 2006 of the “Strategy for Caithness & North Sutherland” and in 2007 to the creation of the Caithness & North Sutherland Regeneration Partnership (CNSRP). The Partnership brings together the key public sector bodies (Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Highland Council, Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, Dounreay Site Restoration Ltd and the Scottish Government) with a remit to address socio-economic issues affecting the area. It works closely with the private sector through Caithness Chamber of Commerce.

CNSRP’s independent Chairman Sir Anthony Cleaver, said

“Since 2007 the Partnership has focused on opportunities which could bring sustainable and high-quality employment to the area, and on the enabling work that would be required to help attract these opportunities.

Opportunities in the energy sector have been key. An early focus for us was on tidal energy opportunities in the Pentland Firth, and this has progressed to the point where the first tidal energy devices could be deployed from Caithness in 2014 and 2015. This is expected to bring with it new employment, and to offer work for existing supply chain companies. Commercial-scale deployment is likely to take place from 2017 onwards, bringing long-term operation and maintenance job opportunities.”

Sir Anthony explained that the development of offshore wind sites in the Moray Firth was also identified as an opportunity, with Wick’s strategic combination of harbour, airport, railway, road meaning it is well placed to become an operations and maintenance base for the Moray Offshore Renewables and Beatrice Offshore Windfarm developments.

“Oil & gas opportunities are also being pursued, “ says Sir Anthony. “Caithness is well placed as a competitive site from which to do business – indeed, this month we have seen Subsea 7 launch their 70th pipeline bundle from their world-beating base at Wester – and as the Aberdeen economy becomes increasingly congested the advantages of a Caithness operation become even stronger.  Already oil & gas companies have recognised the area as a potential strategic hub for several north sea sites, and as new opportunities open up in the West of Shetland fields, Scrabster harbour is well placed as the closest mainland port to win a share of the supply work. This year the Norwegian NorSea Group announced plans to open an oil supply base at Scrabster harbour, the first major signal of onshore investment based on the West of Shetland potential.

The decommissioning of Dounreay is in itself an international focal point, and the skills and experience gathered in carrying out this highly technical work now reside firmly in the workforce at Dounreay.

The ongoing task of the Partnership over the years ahead is to ensure that we create the conditions to embed all that expertise in the local economy, so that companies will choose to remain anchored in Caithness, creating jobs locally and generating a vibrant, growing, diverse economy.”

Eann Sinclair, CNSRP’s Programme Manager added:

“We also recognise that the area’s future prosperity will be based on a more diverse economy: over the past five years some 200 companies have committed to creating (or retaining) 700 full-time equivalent jobs in the area.

Opportunities in delivery of business and financial services will be greatly enhanced by the forthcoming roll-out of superfast broadband, led by CNSRP partner HIE and contractor BT. Already we have good examples of world-class services being delivered from Caithness across the world by companies such as Escape Technologies and Aon Hewitt, and in the process creating high-quality employment. In the tourism industry the development of world class facilities at John O’ Groats will bring wider visitor markets to the industry, and in food & drink local companies are now exporting across the world and creating new jobs.”

CNSRP partners HIE, NDA, Highland Council, Scottish Government and Skills Development Scotland  have since 2007 made infrastructure investments of over £50 million in Scrabster and Wick harbours, in North Highland College facilities, in skills transition and other key projects. These have been significant factors in attracting opportunities.

Partners commissioned a follow-up study into Dounreay’s socio-economic impact in 2011. It found that since 2006 the area’s dependence on Dounreay had decreased, and that supply chain companies had reduced their dependence on Dounreay work whilst increasing turnover.

Eann Sinclair commented: “We have a track record of innovation and adaptability in the north. We made batteries that have powered space missions, we construct and move some of the world’s largest moveable objects at Subsea 7 at Wester; we build cameras that reach the deepest part of the earth’s ocean at Kongsberg Maritime in Wick. As we mark the 25th anniversary of the initial decision to decommission Dounreay, the Partnership’s focus is very much on the significant opportunities that will drive the area’s economy over the next 25 years and beyond.”