It’s not always easy to be optimistic about economic growth in the
Highland region. But with major politicians in both Westminster and Holyrood on its side, that’s all changed, says Christine Jardine
There were times in the recent past when it almost seemed like a re-run of the Highland Clearances. Nigg no more. Ardersier no more. Dounreay disappearing fast.
Major employers across the Highlands and Islands were shutting, or going on to care and maintenance only, with depressing regularity around the turn of the new century .
A large swathe of yet another generation of Highlanders was forced to seek employment elsewhere across the globe as the oil-related employment which promised a new dawn in the 1970s fell into darkness.
And while the Highland capital had notable individual successes and Highlands and Islands Enterprise agency had done its best to stimulate growth through small firms, the “to let” and “for sale” signs in towns and villages across the region told a different story.
Too many people I know in Easter Ross and elsewhere have tales to tell of houses on the market lying unsold for years and available businesses failing to attract interest.
To those living elsewhere in Scotland it might have appeared that the Highlands had returned to a traditional reliance on tourism, agriculture and whisky.
But that has changed. Now the renaissance is becoming established. Claims about Inverness being the fastest growing city in the UK are no longer dismissed as just political hyperbole. The evidence is increasingly visible, even from the Central Belt.
In Inverness itself those successes – which a handful of years ago were too often dismissed by outsiders as the exception to the rule – are now established as the foundations of a new economy.
In Easter Ross, Nigg, that most iconic of symbols of the disappointment that the oil industry left behind, has a new lease of life. Once the Cromarty Firth yard was at the forefront of the oil rig fabrication industry. Now it is the home of Global Energy and a major player in the renewable energy industry.
Agents looking for accommodation for members of its growing workforce coming in to the area are beginning to take up those available properties.
The port of Ardersier, the other major casualty of the loss of fabrication work, looks set to benefit from the UK Government’s new policy on guaranteed prices and support for renewable energy designed to encourage capital investment.
The first Scottish deal announced by the UK Green Investment Bank will offer benefits for both Tomatin’s Distillery and the biomass pellet producer Balcas, whose base at Invergordon supports jobs in sustainable forestry across the region.
And the long-awaited and much campaigned for university is a reality. Together with a growing medical science sector in the city, it underpins a new technology and science sector of the economy.
Elsewhere, the success of the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart, the Rockness music festival and the impact of Inverness Caley Thistle and Ross County in the Scottish Premier League have all propelled the cultural and sporting life of the area into the media spotlight. Taken together, all of these factors have created a popular image of a growing dynamic region that any PR company would be proud to have manufactured.
Finally, the recent installation of the golden footbridge across the A9 on the approach to the Highland Capital was designed to provide access to the new university campus. It now promises to become the symbolic gateway to a region with renewed confidence and a sustainable economy.
But how has this happened? I’ve no doubt there will be those who cry: “It’s renewable energy, stupid.” Certainly that’s part of the plot. But it isn’t the whole story.
For that you have to take account of several decades of work by individuals and the enterprise agency, the accident of geography which placed the region at the heart of the renewables boom and the political change which put elected representatives of the Highlands at the heart of two governments.
For the first time, perhaps in living memory, those sent to Westminster and now also Holyrood, from the Highlands, have the political clout to match their desire to drive change. The significance of that is difficult to quantify, but should not be under-estimated.
In the past it was the Central Belt which benefitted most from having influential figures with an appreciation of their social and economic problems sitting at the top political table.
Both Labour, and at one time the Conservatives, were able to boast senior government figures with the appreciation of the problems facing shipbuilding, steel or the car industry.
That’s not to say they lobbied for their areas at the expense of others, but simply that when a Labour cabinet discussed the problems facing those industries there were people around the table who had first-hand knowledge of the impact their decisions would have. So it is now with the Highlands.
The views of Scottish ministers around the cabinet table in Downing Street in this Government are all informed by first-hand knowledge of our country’s industry and economy.
UK Government energy policy has the benefit of the input of MPs not just from the Highlands and the Northern Isles but the North-east too.
And at Holyrood since its first administration took office there have been ministerial voices there to make sure the interests of the Highlands and Islands were heard.
Take renewable energy and the green economy. In November 2011 the Chief Secretary to the Treasury – Highland Liberal Democrat MP Danny Alexander – and Tory Chancellor George Osborne chose Nigg as the venue to announce that the UK Government was releasing more than £100 million from the Fossil Fuel Fund for investment in the renewable sector. And recently the First Minister chose to unveil his vision of an independent Scotland in a major speech – again at Nigg.
The facility is in a Westminster constituency held by Liberal Democrat MP John Thurso and in a Holyrood seat that was won by the SNP.
It’s difficult to see how it can have failed to benefit from our current governmental set-up.
There have been difficulties too, of course. Recently one airline withdrew a service from Inverness airport, a development which could have carried economic implications. After discussions with the local politicians, easyJet agreed to take up the flights.
There have been job losses at Lifescan – the Johnson & Johnson company which is an important component in the burgeoning life sciences sector of the economy.
But while in the past these moves might have been seen as irreversible or inevitable, they are now developments which the regional economy is better prepared to absorb.
For many of us whose livelihoods are heavily dependent on the Highland, economy the past few months have been optimistic.
In Easter Ross I see the both the material and emotional impact of the renaissance at Nigg. Friends tell me they have tenants for the houses that had lain empty. Others have jobs or new contracts for their firms. Hotels are busy.
There is, of course, the nagging doubt that the region has been down this route before. That is unavoidable.
But this time at least both the economic factors and the political environment seem to be working in the Highlands’ favour.
• Christine Jardine is a former special adviser to Liberal Democrat UK ministers