North Highlands: ready to take off post pandemic - comment

The year started in the way it ended, with further restrictions to combat Covid-19.

The airport at Wick John O’Groats and the connections it provides make the area a more attractive place for businesses to relocate, says Ms Morris. Picture: Highlands and Islands Airports.
The airport at Wick John O’Groats and the connections it provides make the area a more attractive place for businesses to relocate, says Ms Morris. Picture: Highlands and Islands Airports.

While difficult but necessary, the national vaccination programme offers hope, and we can begin to look at how we build back the Scottish economy.

Further redundancies are looming, and recent analysis by Highlands and Islands Enterprise found that unemployment is increasing faster across the region than the rest of Scotland. This situation will exacerbate long-standing challenges of depopulation and inward investment and is made more serious by the absence of scheduled air services from Wick John O’Groats (WJOG) airport since last year.

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North Highland communities live in some of the most remote places in the UK. The airport and the connections it provides make the area a more attractive place for businesses to relocate, bringing jobs and valuable investment.

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Prior to Covid-19, we saw a steady degradation of airline services, and so developed a business case for a Public Service Obligation (PSO), a robust document that remains with the Scottish Government. In this, we argued for investment to help deliver twice daily flights to Aberdeen and Edinburgh to address this situation, one that now poses a significant risk to the region’s economic recovery and longer-term potential.

Without lifeline air services, investment in the region may be lost, as businesses chose to relocate to parts of Scotland with stronger regional connections. This is not an imagined reality, as one multi-national company recently decided to cease operations at Wick Harbour, citing the lack of scheduled air services as a major factor.

The PSO is a shovel-ready infrastructure project that aligns with core Scottish Government policy objectives. The forthcoming Budget statement provides government with the chance to commit to playing its part in our regions’ post-pandemic future.

If Scottish Government were to commit to the PSO, it would help ensure the North Highlands has equity with the rest of Scotland in terms of connectivity, social inclusion, and inward investment.

This will be strategic investment, driving the economic recovery of the region, and helping achieve the Scottish Government’s net-zero targets in the Highlands and Islands. It would support our transition away from economic reliance on the Dounreay nuclear site, and into new growth areas such as renewable energy. This is the very type of energy and economic transition ministers regularly talk about on a national level.

Such an opportunity can only be secured with the necessary investment, which is estimated to be £3 million, a relatively small figure given the future benefits it will accrue.

While many parts of Scotland are struggling right now, this initiative will give businesses critical support, regional links to the rest of the country and help secure future investment.

However, this can only become a reality if the Scottish Government commits to this future, and helps drive economic growth, invest in Scotland’s infrastructure, and deliver a green recovery – helping our region grow and succeed for years to come.

Trudy Morris, chief executive at Caithness Chamber of Commerce

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