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DAVID RICHARDSON: Ripple effects of Cromarty Firth freeport status needed to help far north's fight for survival

By David Richardson

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Business Comment by David Richardson, regional development manager at the Federation of Small Businesses

David Richardson, regional development manager at FSB.
David Richardson, regional development manager at FSB.

The success of Opportunity Cromarty Firth’s Green Freeport bid is wonderful news for the Inner Moray Firth, the estimated 25,000 jobs and £6 billion contribution giving a massive boost to the local economy.

For the freeport’s focus is on renewable energy projects that will "lead to new business opportunities and employment, attract inward investment, research and development, and position the Highlands at the heart of the country’s commitment to becoming a net-zero economy".

We must all hope that the opportunities for smaller businesses ripple out across Caithness and Sutherland, for we’ve just missed out on the UK government’s levelling up funds, and we need them.

Right now, far too many businesses are fighting for survival as they are bombarded by an endless list of crises. Eye-watering cost increases and a reduction in UK government support, debt accumulated during the pandemic, uncertain consumer demand, the introduction of new Scottish Government regulations that will make doing business more difficult for many struggling firms, and, of course, finding the money needed to meet net zero requirements – all are taking their tolls.

But it doesn’t stop there, for the major staffing shortages that are blighting so many businesses aren’t going to end any time soon, one reason being our ageing and declining populations. Highland Council’s secondary school roll forecasts for the next 15 years predict declines of 20 per cent in Ullapool, 29 per cent in Kinlochbervie, 12 per cent in Farr, 15 per cent in Thurso, nine per cent in Wick and 11 per cent in Golspie, only Dornoch seeing almost no change. Frightening!

As a region, the Highlands and Islands is different to the rest of Scotland, no less so the northern Highlands, and one-size-fits-all national strategies don’t always work here.

Right now, we must be pragmatists, doing everything possible to keep vital anchor businesses alive in rural areas, not least those involved in our tourism industry, for they are central to community wellbeing.

And in the longer term, we must lobby Holyrood for more resources to be devolved to this region, for this is where decisions can best be taken on how to create truly vibrant and sustainable local communities with healthy, balanced populations.

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