13th October 2020
Stephen Sutherland, chairman of the Caithness Chamber of Commerce board, looks at what has been achieved in the past year and what lies ahead
Earlier this month we welcomed businesses from across the North Highlands to our thirteenth Annual General Meeting. As with so many events this year, COVID restrictions meant that this had to be held virtually, but despite the challenges we had a fantastic turnout.
Hosting our AGM has given me a chance to pause and reflect on some of what the Chamber has achieved this past year, as well as some of the many challenges still facing us and the wider business community across the North Highlands.
As with every business, it is impossible for us to look back at our year and not see the huge impact that COVID-19 has had on our operations. We have had to manage the challenges that come with home working and significant upheaval to our plans for the year, while facing a heavier workload than ever before assisting the business community through this difficult time.
We have had some significant successes, despite the challenges. Our ongoing efforts to get up-to-date information, guidance and details of support out to our members and the wider business community have been commended by many. The flow of information has not been one way, and through our close working relationship with the Highland Council and Scottish Chambers of Commerce, we were able to flag up some early concerns with support mechanisms and secure key changes or additional support.
Through our management of the Caithness Business Fund, we were also able to secure and disburse £200,000 of funding (thanks to support from Dounreay Site Restoration Ltd and the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority) to businesses across the North Highlands in a short space of time. This has made a huge difference to many businesses at a time when support was most needed. Thanks to the support of Dounreay Site Restoration Ltd, we’ve also been able to expand our business mentoring and support to cover any business in the region affected by COVID-19.
Looking beyond COVID, the year has brought other successes for the Chamber. We’ve continued to grow our membership, seen previous lobbying efforts pay off with the completion of works on the Berriedale Braes, and stepped up our campaign for a PSO from Wick John O’Groats Airport with partners.
Looking towards the remainder of 2020 and the start of 2021, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed by the scale of the challenges we have yet to face. The COVID-19 situation remains uncertain and, despite new support from UK Government, many businesses will struggle with the loss of the furlough scheme at the end of this month. We also have the threat of further restrictions, which have the potential to further damage consumer and business confidence. So we will continue to lobby for further government assistance from both Westminster and Holyrood.
We also need to start preparing for the effects of Brexit. Although much, as ever, remains uncertain on that front, elements such as the UK’s new points-based immigration system will be coming into force on 1 January 2021 and businesses need to start preparing now for the impacts that will bring.
However, it’s also important that we don’t lose sight of the opportunities the future holds for the North Highlands. The ScotWind leasing round looks set to bring significant investments in offshore wind to the region’s coastline, and plans continue to progress for the UK’s first vertical launch spaceport in Sutherland.
Ambitious plans are also coming from both UK and Scottish Governments for net zero carbon. With our local experience across a range of energy sectors, and our location and size offering a perfect testbed for pilot projects, the North Highlands is well placed to lead the way in this area.
If the past year has shown us anything, it’s that we don’t know what the future might hold for us. Whatever may come, the Chamber is here to support and promote businesses across the North Highlands and fight for a brighter future for the region.