22nd December 2023

Trudy Morris, Chief Executive, Caithness Chamber of Commerce

Earlier this month I was invited to Holyrood by the Nuclear Institute Association (NIA) to the Nuclear Energy in Scotland Reception, hosted by Liam Kerr MSP, marking the start of a long-term conversation between MSPs, Civil Servants and Industry Representatives. The reception brought together key stakeholders and decision-makers with the ambition to help drive the Scottish nuclear industry forward.

Scotland has a long history of nuclear research and electricity generation, and the event reaffirmed our belief that nuclear has a home here in Scotland as part of our energy mix. The reception at Holyrood talked much about the nuclear renaissance.

Nuclear power stations and the nuclear engineering supply chain have generated enormous benefits for the people of Scotland and the legacy of nuclear runs deep through the North Highlands. Employment at Dounreay is vital to Caithness, directly employing over 1,200 people and supporting around 700 on-site contract workers, alongside a network of sophisticated local supply chain businesses – all supporting the highly complex decommissioning processes onsite. In many ways, nuclear is part of the contemporary, cultural DNA of our region. For many years, Dounreay has brought highly skilled, well-paid jobs to the local area, supported apprenticeships, and graduate opportunities and provided substantial, and tangible benefits to the local community through its socio-economic activity. You would be hard-pressed to find anybody in Caithness who doesn’t know somebody connected to Dounreay.

As we step forward as a nation towards a “Just Transition” our region’s assets including the highly skilled workforce, natural capital, and reputation for excellence will position the North Highlands as fundamental to Scotland’s transition to renewable power, however the critical mass to meet the developments ahead will require careful planning.

As a nation we need to ensure all these industries can be resourced. As a North Highland community, we need to ensure the new opportunities of space and renewables complement rather than compete with our existing sectors. New nuclear south of the border may be a lure and an attractive proposition for those in the industry, however nuclear decommissioning is still very much a growth sector.

A large part of our work at the Chamber falls in harnessing and galvanising support for the new opportunities in our region. We work closely with stakeholders and developers to help steer and connect policy makers, decision makers and our local business community. Transformational projects in our region will play a crucial role in driving investment in our future skills, economy and infrastructure. But understandably, businesses and communities have questions too – what will this look like for us? What will this look like for our children or even our grandchildren? How do we prepare for what’s ahead, and most poignantly – how can we maximise these opportunities? The Chamber is here to make sure our region has a voice that is part of creating the narrative of our future, not an audience swept along by incoming tides.Key stakeholders including our two governments must work collaboratively to create a sustainable region, providing a healthy, economically stable environment for those living here. We need a larger working population, and this must be built into our regional strategic thinking. We need investment in our transport, infrastructure, and skills, and we urgently need to see rural communities put at the forefront of government decision-making. The legacy of Dounreay and its decommissioning will remain a beating current in Caithness and North Sutherland for years to come. The challenge now is to balance and develop the new opportunities ahead for the maximum benefit of our region.

Business Insight: Dave Calder, Head of Sustainability and Socio Economics at NRS Dounreay.

Our area is poised to step into a future of our own making and the time to make that happen is now. Here we sit, delicately balanced between the bright potential of economic growth and a demographic deficit potentially leaving us unable to deliver that future. A local decarbonised energy economy built on the back of 75 years of nuclear activity awaits and the challenge this brings with it, is how do we unlock the value to deliver a sustainable economy in the north Highlands for our communities and ultimately our future?

As has been publicised in national media earlier this month interpreting results from the September release of preliminary data from the 2021 census, the Highlands, and particularly rural areas such as Caithness have seen a fall in the younger population over the last decade or so which drives predictions of depopulation of 18% between 2018 and 2040 unless we act. So how do we develop, attract, and retain the skills and capability necessary to capitalise on the nuclear decommissioning activity locally and nationally, offshore renewables and emergent space sector of which Caithness and North Sutherland is the epicentre?

Although the direction of travel is promising, there are some challenges to be overcome. Recently, the Highland Council, a partner in Focus North, discussed two reports. One assessing the impact of depopulation, and a second on developing a strategy to enable a future workforce, the final version of which should be brought before the Council in May 2024. The paper refers to the Withers report produced for the Scottish Government earlier this year which describes ‘the current skills delivery landscape as complex and fragmented’ with several recommendations aimed at creating ‘a strong and fairer economy for all’.

How do we support working age repopulation in the area, to enable a sustainable economy? Well to first quote and then paraphrase the Withers report ‘our skills delivery landscape should aspire to be world class. It should be an area of distinct competitive advantage for Scotland’. For our area, working across the public sector and in partnership with the private sector locally, we have an opportunity to focus efforts and resources on creating a local skills agenda which creates an area of distinctive competitive advantage for northern Scotland. The time to make that happen is now.

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