ICC Manifesto: Inverness Chamber calls on next UK Government to place the Highlands at the heart of the country’s renewable energy transition

Ahead of the General Election taking place on Friday 4 July 2024, Inverness Chamber of Commerce outlines its vision for a thriving Highland business community.

Highlighting some of the priorities it believes our next Westminster representative and the UK Government must tackle, working in partnership with business, Inverness Chamber of Commerce lays out its manifesto which covers a range of measures to realise the region’s ambition to be a leading energy hub in Europe and the UK’s centre for renewable industry and supply.

Affirmative action to grow rural employment, deliver more affordable housing, strengthen transport and grid connections and energy storage as a route to levelling up and accelerating our Highland economy are among the calls to action from Inverness Chamber of Commerce, as it shares its business manifesto today ahead of the General Election.

Ensuring the Highlands reaches its full potential to become the heart of the renewable energy sector for the UK

There is no doubt that the Highlands is going to be the green energy hub for the UK. There is nowhere else in Europe with our hydro potential, strong winds, deep water and existing infrastructure of large ports.

As we develop more green energy here, the rest of the UK will become increasingly reliant on the Highlands to break our country’s dependency on imported energy sources and to reach our net zero targets.

We call on the UK Government to fully embrace the Highlands’ position at the centre of this transition and to signal its understanding of our role by relocating part of the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero to our region. If Labour are in government and introduce their manifesto commitment to establish GB Energy, they should consider headquartering the organisation in our region as that is where the bulk of our future energy will be generated.

The Highlands has suffered from years of reduction in our working age population (3.4% in the last decade) and the energy transition is the key to reversing that trend and ensuring that our region remains viable for future generations.  Inverness and Cromarty Firth Green Freeport is central to that energy transition, but a number of other policy areas must also be accelerated.

Energy storage and planning

To fully manage this transition energy storage will be a key issue. The UK needs increased energy storage capacity to convert intermittent renewable energy to a reliable, secure electricity supply if we are to stop relying on fossil fuels. Energy generation is only part of the picture. The more we rely on renewable sources, the more important the ability to store that energy and to balance the grid becomes. Pumped hydro storage is going to play an important role in that mix. Our unique geography and history of hydro schemes means the bulk of that storage has to happen in our region.

We ask that both UK and Scottish Governments work together to address the speed of the consenting process around renewable schemes and find ways, through planning, of considering the network of storage required, rather than the current position where developers compete to be first in a region. A planning approach with a greater overview should speed up the consenting process while also protecting communities from seemingly endless development as one scheme follows another.

Transmission capacity and planning

The energy created in our region needs to be transmitted from its point of generation (normally offshore) throughout the UK.  Our ability to transport that huge amount of energy and distribute it to where it’s needed in our cities, towns and villages will be critical.

Market demand for high voltage cables has increased which is why we welcome the announcement of the Sumitomo factory at Port of Nigg as it will help reduce lead times for the supply of sub-sea cables and strengthen our energy security. This investment is a direct result of Green Freeport status.

Transmission needs great investment and careful planning. Communities need to understand where transmission lines will go and the impact on their communities needs to be minimised. But we also need a planning system that allows these developments to not be unduly delayed by a small number of objections – we need better methods to engage entire communities and understand their views and concerns. We ask that both UK and Scottish Governments work together to address the speed of the consenting process around transmission schemes and find better ways of gauging sentiment across communities rather than being swayed by small pockets of objections.

Consumers and businesses in the Highlands currently pay amongst the largest standing charges for electricity of anywhere in the UK. This is based on historical costs of power distribution. The generation and transmission infrastructure of the future will be based here. We ask that the UK Government legislate quickly to ensure that this position changes, and that our residents and businesses receive a discount, not a penalty, for having that infrastructure on their doorstep. This will compensate our residents for hosting the infrastructure and help level the playing field for our businesses to compete. 

Developing our workforce

Our working age population has declined over the last ten years and has been a major barrier for economic growth. As a result, recruitment challenges are already an issue for many Highland businesses requiring skilled staff. The requirement for increased employment to achieve the energy transition will add further pressure. We want our businesses to succeed and they therefore need skilled people in place to help them do that.

We’re calling on the UK and Scottish Governments to work together to address this issue in a number of ways:

Affirming support for Developing the Young Workforce is essential to ensure that young people understand what our future economy will look like and are well placed to take the opportunities that will be available to them in the Highlands.

We need more incentives in place for employers to recruit apprentices at all levels from modern to graduate. This is so we can foster our home-grown talent for current gaps in the workforce, while also training them for the skills we’ll need in the future as our region looks to create 10,000 new jobs, thanks to the opportunities being created by the Inverness & Cromarty Firth Green Freeport.

We need a greater collaboration between industry and UHI, to ensure that it is providing the right courses for our future economy.  But UHI also needs more funding to increase the number of places at all levels – including apprenticeships – to ensure it can help meet the demand from industry. We call on UK and Scottish Government to work together to ensure that UHI is appropriately resourced and can meet the demand from our future renewables industry.

The tightening of immigration policy has had a detrimental impact on our workforce. We are short of staff across all our business sectors. We ask the UK government to allow a greater flow of workers to enter our region and to lower the salary level required to sponsor a worker to ensure that the scheme is useful across all our industries – including hospitality.

The Highland housing crisis (planning and construction)

Scotland’s housing crisis is acute in the Highlands. And yet we have a huge landmass and a sparse population. It is politics, regulation and investment that are holding us back – not a lack of space. We need to unlock this issue quickly.

We need to streamline planning and the allocation of housing land to tackle the housing crisis by providing more training for planners to help speed up housing approvals across the country.

This is an urgent issue because businesses that are looking to recruit and attract more skilled workers to the area are struggling because their new recruits cannot find accommodation of appropriate tenure to live in and therefore give up on the job opportunity. This is true across many sectors including our health service. There will also be issues when it comes to housing the workforces required for construction phases of new renewable projects.

The new industries coming to the Highlands will be willing to invest in housing. We need to see employers and developers building homes that could be used temporarily by construction workers in the first instance, and then latterly as social or mid-market permanent housing for the community. This requires a planning framework and co-operation between government and local authorities to allow these developments to be fast tracked but with a long-term view of seeing some of the new housing eventually becoming part of the social housing stock.

It also goes without saying that with the large expansion in housing we require must be accompanied by schools, health and other essential services to serve our communities properly and not continue to put pressure on the existing services in place.

Transport infrastructure fit for purpose

We’re calling on Westminster candidates to back our calls and to continue to put pressure on Transport Scotland to keep the promises it made last year to deliver the upgrades for the vital A9. A similar timetable needs to be established for dualling the A96.  It is essential that both these routes are dualled at the earliest opportunity and that the case is made to accelerate the current timetable for both.

We want to firstly make it safe for travellers, both for business and leisure, to journey up and down these beautiful but testing roads. Then also, to ensure such major connecting infrastructure routes are fit for purpose for our key industries by improving journey times and access for our communities. Ironically, the move towards our net zero targets relies on fully dualling both these roads to ensure the necessary movement of goods and staff. With the installation of a high-quality electric vehicle charging network the traffic itself needn’t add to our emissions.

Our rail journey times and carriage capacity to the central belt and throughout the Highlands need drastic improvement. The journey to the central belt also needs to be fully electrified.  This will ensure passengers continue using this means of public transport as the country works towards its net zero targets, helping to ease congestion on our vital road networks while helping commuters to be productive on their journeys.

Our traditional industries

Our transition to net zero is essential to our region and to the whole of the UK. Our traditional industries of tourism, hospitality and agriculture will also benefit as we look to attract more people and challenge the issues that threaten them most, so they can continue to offer that world-class experience that people will expect.

That is why our calls for better training and housing are essential to avoid the workforce being taken away from these industries or being priced out the housing market.

It’s also important to give these industries the vital support they need as they compete in a world market, and we call on UK government to re-introduce tax free tourist shopping and to raise the VAT threshold to avoid smaller operators being pulled into paying VAT through fiscal drag or the introduction of schemes like the Visitor Levy. We also call on UK Government to work with Scottish Government to introduce rates relief to Scottish hospitality providers to match that enjoyed by their English colleagues.

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