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Cta Man

The quest of the west

Published 19/02/2024 by Alastair Nicolson 5 min read

The glass is more than half full in the West Highlands, writes Alastair Nicolson, HIE area manager for Lochaber, Skye and Wester Ross

When we look for problems and faults, we’re guaranteed to find them. But the same can be said of strengths and opportunities.

I’m reflecting on the recent series of press articles about the challenges facing rural communities and economies in many parts of the Highlands and Islands.

I wouldn’t take issue with any of this. Lochaber and West Highland featured strongly in the articles and as HIE area manager for Lochaber, Skye and Wester Ross, I see those challenges every day.

However, I also believe that for every fault there’s a strength, for every problem there’s opportunity, and strength plus opportunity equals potential.

There was reference in the coverage to research we carried out a few years ago into the attitudes and aspirations among young people towards the region. This showed increasing positivity with more wanting to stay and fewer wanting to leave. Not only is this a sign of growing prosperity and appeal, it’s also an opportunity.

On this topic, there was a line in the media attributed to Clair Nichols, chief officer at Youth Highland, that really struck a chord with me. Her assertion that ‘There are clear actions which could encourage them to stay’ says it as it is.

Therein lies the opportunity and it’s one of many being pursued vigorously.

While we’re certainly not without the many challenges detailed in the articles, the West Highlands is nevertheless a growing force in Scotland’s economy. And this stretches well beyond traditional industries such as tourism, agriculture and forestry.

There’s so much going on here, from small scale developments to larger longer-term projects. We’re involved in many of those, working with stakeholders across the public, private and third sectors, communities and enterprising local residents.

This is having a significant cumulative impact on Lochaber’s economic fortunes in the wake of some extremely challenging years. It’s also providing opportunities that many young people will be looking for.

Scotland’s largest infrastructure project under development this century is right here. SSE’s large scale pumped hydro storage project at Coire Glas is the UK’s first such project in more than 40 years.

Kishorn Port limited is exploring yet further expansion of its facilities in Wester Ross serving the offshore renewables and oil and gas industries and creating jobs and prosperity in a very rural area.

Alvance has planning permission for a multi-million-pound development at its smelter in Fort William.

Companies such as Sonas Hotel Group (Skye), the Isle of Skye Candle Company and Highland Soap Company have all made the news with their expansion projects.

So too have inward investors from overseas, who are in no doubt about the value of our region’s natural environment and the competitive advantage this offers.

Examples include Binderholz, the Austrian timber firm with global operations. This company is the ambitious new owner of BSW whose Corpach site is the largest sawmill in the UK.

Mowi, a Norway based salmon company, is developing its Fort William base with a multi-million-pound upgrade.

And there’s the £5m R&D project by Bakkafrost Scotland that’s created around 30 jobs and will help transform the salmon farming sector in Scotland.

As the Outdoor Capital of the UK, Lochaber is a huge draw for skiers, snowboarders, mountain bikers, walkers, climbers and those who just want to enjoy the landscapes.

In this context, Nevis Range has seen significant investment in recent years to transform its offering for both winter sports and recreational and competitive mountain biking. And Glencoe Mountain has seen a £2m project to create a new energy efficient base station for its ski centre.

Kinlochleven is home to The Ice Factor, one of the largest and most challenging facilities of its kind in Europe. And the community-led £3.7m Thomas Telford Corpach Marina, at the entrance to the historic Caledonian Canal on Loch Linnhe, opened in 2023 as a fully accessible state of the art facility.

It’s no surprise that there’s full employment here, with demand for labour even exceeding supply in many sectors – particularly hospitality. Yes, that in itself presents challenges, particularly around talent attraction and housing, but those challenges stem from a good place and work is progressing to address them.

The glass is in fact more than half full and attracting and accommodating more economically active people will unlock yet further potential.

The FW2040 masterplan will transform Fort William town centre into a central hub for a growing and prosperous region. The Highland Council is in the throes of the largest housebuilding programme in Fort William since the 1970’s, while LSHA has ambitious plans to grow Portree in Skye.

Each of these initiatives demonstrates the power of partnership and what can be achieved through collaboration. With sustained investment and by working together, we can and will realise new opportunities, attract new talent and investors and enhance the contribution the West Highlands makes to Scotland’s economy.

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