Green freeport offers bright future – but housing must be built now

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Business Focus by David Richardson

FSB regional development manager David Richardson.

FSB regional development manager David Richardson.

FSB regional development manager David Richardson.

Opportunity is knocking for the Highlands. So said the Inverness and Cromarty Firth Green Freeport's CEO, Calum MacPherson, at our recent FSB Highlands and Moray Business Bootcamp. For if we get it right, the long-term impact on the local economy of the anticipated GBP3 billion investment in the freeport - the largest in Scotland in our lifetimes - will be massive.

Over 10,000 new jobs are forecast in the next 10 to 15 years, attracting workers and their families to move in, presenting our home-grown young people with exciting career opportunities and reasons to stay on, and helping to reverse population decline. As things stand, with Highland unemployment sitting at 2.5 per cent and too many vacancies chasing too few job seekers, many Highland businesses are already having to cut opening hours, the services they offer or both, and much worse is to come. Using government population publications, Highland Council is forecasting a shocking 23 per cent decline in secondary school rolls across its 29 schools and a 24 per cent decline in those serving Caithness and Sutherland.

How are the many businesses already struggling to find staff going to sustain themselves, and where are the freeport's workers going to come from? Is the latter going to have to try to lure workers away from the former? How are all businesses going to meet consumer demand, and what are the long-term consequences for them and our region if they fail?

Quite simply, there isn't enough affordable accommodation to meet current, let-alone future needs, and until there is the economic and social future of our region is jeopardised.

It is imperative that we restore and repurpose existing buildings and build new, and do so now. The Scottish Government's newly declared housing emergency is very welcome, but it must also find substantial sums of money and introduce the new Masterplan Consent Areas (MCAs) urgently. And while Highland Council is investigating housing needs linked to economic developments and the early adoption of MCAs, property developers, landowners and communities must also be convinced to play ball.

The future can and will be bright, but only if we work together to make it so.

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