Port of Cromarty Firth

Audrey MacIver, HIE’s director of energy transition and net zero, looks at the potential for a green freeport in the region

Last year, eight freeports were identified in England. In March this year, the UK and Scottish Governments published a bidding prospectus to create two green freeports in Scotland, with the UK Government pledging £52m seed funding.

Competition from locations across Scotland will be fierce, but I’m absolutely convinced that the Highlands and Islands region is in an ideal position to host at least one of those, and delighted that there are two bids progressing.

A green freeport is a large, zoned area within a defined boundary that includes at least one rail, sea or airport but can extend 45km beyond.

They are designed to boost economic growth through various targeted taxes, customs, and other incentives (both reserved and devolved), including planning, regeneration, and innovation.

The two bids we are expecting from this region are Orkney and the Cromarty Firth. Orkney, with Scapa Flow at its heart, has a long history of association with marine industries, not least renewable energy. It is home to the European Marine Energy Centre, which has been breaking new grounds in this field for the past 20 years.

More recently, we’ve seen the establishment of the Orkney Research and Innovation Campus, which is supporting the growth of the islands’ world-leading marine renewable, energy and low carbon industries.

The Opportunity Cromarty Firth (OCF) bid is a collaboration of more than a dozen organisations representing industry, academia and the public sector around the Easter Ross and Inverness area. The aim is to stimulate transformational regeneration through economic activity in manufacturing for, amongst other sectors, offshore wind, green hydrogen and life sciences, and from local and inward investment, innovation, skills development and employment.

This development would build on the recent significant investments that have been made in marine infrastructure in the Cromarty Firth at Invergordon and Nigg and the area’s historic and ongoing strengths in engineering and life sciences.

A report commissioned by OCF estimated that the consortium’s proposals could potentially add a further 20,000 jobs to those already expected in the wind farm construction phase alone.

Creating a green freeport in either of these locations would be a game changer for the region, with benefits spread across Scotland and the UK. It would accelerate regeneration and create new green jobs that complement the skills of the workforce. On a broader level it would help transform the country’s economy and make a huge contribution to meeting net zero targets.

It would support broader efforts to secure more significant levels of manufacturing in offshore wind and green chemical production. And it would accelerate the development of strong industrial clusters, support delivery of future offshore wind capacity, and help strengthen and retain rural populations.

Nearly £300m has been invested in our region’s ports and harbours since 2010, and we now have a network of those around the region serving the growth in offshore wind and other marine industries.

Well-selected green freeport developments would play an important role in achieving green growth and opening new social opportunities. Port owners and operators, enterprise agencies, Growth Deals and developers want to deliver better social value through their activities.

I think green freeports are an opportunity to go beyond compliance and involve local people in developing the vision for their future freeport, to achieve transformational change.

The Highlands and Islands bids intend to harbour innovation-based businesses and are both located where entrepreneurial growth is already happening, for example close to universities or businesses with strong research, development, innovation and enterprise hubs.

In time, better local job prospects would bring housebuilding, better schooling, healthcare and amenities for local people. And jobs would be indirectly created in hospitality, retail and leisure, teaching and healthcare.

A green freeport would be a very natural fit in the region and we wish both our region’s bids well in their efforts to secure this valuable regeneration asset.

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