Visiting the county this week were the Chairman, Chief Executive, Regional Director and several Board Members of Highlands & Islands Enterprise. I attended a breakfast meeting held jointly by HIE and Caithness Chamber of Commerce at which HIE Chairman Willy Roe reiterated the organisation’s ambitions for the area over the next few years. The well-attended meeting then allowed local business representatives the opportunity to talk with HIE staff and Board members.
Together with Cllr David Flear I was invited by John Thurso MP and colleagues at the NDA and DSRL to meet Rt. Hon. Chris Huhne MP, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, and Stephen Henwood, Chairman of the NDA, during a visit to the Dounreay site. The Minister also met with representatives from Dounreay Trades Unions. My message was to highlight the significant economic and social impact of decommissioning Dounreay, and the key opportunities we are pursuing to address this. The discussion focused in particular on opportunities for renewable energy in the Pentland Firth to provide both local economic benefit and to contribute to UK climate change targets. During the Minister’s time in the county he also visited the Environmental Research Institute to hear in more detail of the world-class research taking place there.
The Minister also accompanied Stephen Henwood and Randall Bargelt to Scrabster, where he was able to announce the approval of £2M from the NDA’s socio-economic budget to the redevelopment project at Scrabster Harbour. This is an important first piece of the funding package for Scrabster Harbour Trust’s plans.
Following the recent visit to Caithness of Michael Moore MP, Secretary of State for Scotland, it was heartening to hear from Martin Wenban of Caithness Solutions that the Minister’s speech to Decom North Sea’s “Offshore Decommissioning Conference” this week highlighted the high quality skills base in Caithness. There is an increasing interest in the range and quality of skills based around Dounreay, as I saw earlier this year when I presented to an audience of Energy Industry Council members in Aberdeen.
The Scottish Government this week published a refreshed version of its “Skills for Scotland” strategy to take account of the wider economic climate and the need to accelerate recovery. You can read the document at http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2010/10/04125111/1. The strategy has four main objectives: empowering people; supporting employers; simplifying the skills system and strengthening partnerships. Key delivery body Skills Development Scotland is working with Caithness Chamber of Commerce and local partners on our Workforce Transition proposals (“Connecting People, Skills and New Opportunities”), which will make positive local impacts on the delivery of the strategy.
I met with Graham Elliott, the Executive Director of North Highland Connections, to hear an update on its current range of activities. NHC is one of the strands of activity taking place under the overall North Highland Initiative of HRH The Duke of Rothesay. Its aim is to drive economic benefit for the area through cultural development and promotion. The organisation is at present pursuing a number of ambitious Caithness-based projects with potential national and international significance.
Finally – today sees the opening ceremony of the Royal National Mod 2010 in Caithness. It’s the first time in the Mod’s 120 year history that the event has come this far north. Over the next seven days it is estimated that several thousand additional visitors will arrive in Caithness either to take part in competition, perform on the Mod Fringe or simply to enjoy the range of music, drama, arts, food and drink on show. The main partners in CNSRP have played a key role in supporting the Mod’s development over the last two years – Highland Council, HIE, NDA and Scottish Government are all funding partners. Congratulations to Raymond Bremner and the dedicated team of people who lobbied for Caithness as a venue and then worked tirelessly on the huge logistic issues associated with such an influx of visitors. Apart from its cultural and media value, the Mod’s economic impact on the county is expected to be considerable. Within our overall Action Plan for diversifying the area’s economy this represents the type of event-based tourism we feel delivers direct business benefit across accommodation, retail, attractions etc, and encourages further development of our tourism “product”.