You’ll have heard the news then? Last week, Rishi Sunak flew into the Highlands to congratulate search and rescue teams, toast marshmallows with Sea Scouts, and meet Nicola Sturgeon.
He also officially confirmed what this newspaper had announced a few days earlier, which is that one of two new Green Freeports for Scotland will be in the Cromarty Firth area.
What will Green Freeports give us?
Last summer I had barely heard of ‘Green Freeports’, or ‘Opportunity Cromarty Firth’, but in July I was asked to host a discussion with the main parties behind our local bid. Bids from five areas across Scotland had been submitted to Michael Gove last spring, with the understanding that two would be chosen to share ‘levelling up’ funding of up to £52 million.
In addition, the two chosen Green Freeports would benefit from tax reliefs and other incentives. The main aim of the freeports is – and here I’m quoting the Scottish Government website – “to contribute towards a just transition to net zero emissions by 2045 and create new, green jobs.”
Employment and worker protection are key
Applicants were “also required to set out how they would support high-quality employment opportunities with fair work conditions at their core.”
When we recorded our discussions last July, we were expecting an announcement within just a couple of weeks. But back then, the Westminster Government was in turmoil. Sunak and Truss were battling tooth and nail for the top job, and all energies were focussed on their power struggle, rather than the business of running the country.
But they say that good things come to those who wait. And we have that news now. Will it be a good thing for us? I strongly believe so.
What Opportunity Cromarty Firth will bring
The aim of our local bid is to build a world-beating floating offshore wind manufacturing sector, with sites in the Cromarty Firth, Invergordon, Nigg, and Inverness.
Opportunity Cromarty Firth expects to create up to 25,000 new jobs and attract £2.6 billion in inward investment to the area. In addition to offshore wind manufacturing, it will focus on green hydrogen and on creating a new innovation cluster. That cluster will be a centre of excellence in which new green-energy technologies can be explored, refined, and implemented, and then – perhaps the most exciting bit – shared the world over.
This news has been hailed by most as an opportunity to develop, regenerate, and drive economic growth, something the Highlands and Moray have lacked for decades. In short, this could be as big a boost for the Moray Firth area as oil and gas was for Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire in the 1970s.
But there are questions…
But 25,000 new jobs is a huge number for our relatively modest mainly rural population. And what kinds of jobs will they be? Where will the workers come from? Where will they live? Will there be space in local schools for their children? And how will our already stretched local councils support these families?
Local MPs and MSPs from across the political spectrum backed the local bid and received the news with almost cross-the-board jubilation. But not everyone is in favour.
… and there are dissenters
Highlands and Islands Green MSP Ariane Burgess didn’t mince her words, saying “the venture gives tax breaks and public money to private companies and promotes a race to the bottom on pay and conditions for workers.
“I’m disappointed that the Highlands – an area that has built up a strong track record for thriving social enterprise and innovative rural businesses generating money for the local economy – is going to see much-needed economic development funding going instead to enrich wealthy shareholders and benefit tax havens instead of local communities.”
And that’s good democracy
But while I welcome the news, I also welcome its dissenters. That is what good democracy is all about.
We obviously all hope that the jobs that are created will be well paid, that workers’ rights will be protected, that funding ring-fenced for education will create top-quality courses in world-changing subjects, and the additional rates that Highland Council receives will be sufficient to create the infrastructure an increased local population will need.
I don’t yet know what the timetable is, but I expect growth and investment to be gradual and incremental. I expect there to be some demanding checks and balances along the way.
And I hope the Green Party, the unions, alongside the Bid’s partners and most vociferous supporters, will be diligent in ensuring that the Green’s greatest fears regarding workers’ pay and conditions, and all investment leaving the area, don’t materialise. And that we all grow and flourish together.
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