Nicola Sturgeon has hailed a wave of investment that could transform the Highlands into the “real beating heart” of the Scottish manufacturing sector.
The first minister heralded the “bright new era” for the region as one of her key ministers predicted the north was now “shaking off its chocolate box image and becoming a powerhouse of the modern economy”.
Ms Sturgeon was speaking to the Press and Journal after addressing a summit of Scottish business leaders in Inverness yesterday.
She highlighted the “hugely exciting” £1billion plans by the GFG Alliance to safeguard Fort William’s historic smelter and build a new automotive plant at the site, which could soon produce a quarter of all UK car wheels.
And the SNP leader also pointed to the £500million development under way to install the world’s largest tidal energy scheme in the Pentland Firth, as well as the £2.6billion Beatrice offshore windfarm, and recent contracts awarded to the Nigg and Kishorn fabrication yards.
After her keynote address at the National Economic Forum in the city’s Kingsmills Hotel, the first minister said: “I think potentially we are seeing a bright new era for the Highlands.
“The Fort William development, firstly securing the future of the smelter, but also the plans around automotive facilities there I think are hugely exciting in terms of seeing the Highlands as a real beating heart of Scottish manufacturing, and next generation manufacturing.
“So I think there is every reason to be really optimistic about the future of the Highlands and obviously the infrastructure investments, to support that kind of activity, adds to that sense of optimism as well.”
Business, Innovation and Energy Minister Paul Wheelhouse made similar positive predictions at a dinner organised by the Scottish Council for Development and Industry in Lochaber.
He believed that the reputation of the region was being transformed, saying: “Everyone knows the contribution the Highlands and Islands makes through tourism as well as food and drink, but the region can shake off its chocolate box image and become a powerhouse of the modern economy.
“There has been an increase in small businesses and an increase in spending, so the area is closing the gap on the Scottish average and will soon be able to overtake it.”
However, Lochaber-based businesswoman and mother Anja Baak quizzed Ms Sturgeon on the infrastructure strains placed on such communities during a question and answer session at the economic summit.
She said: “I’m a member of the parent council of a local school in Fort William and they are really struggling, their budget is going down and down and down all the time.
“In Fort William we’ve got the new development so we could have lots of people working there, what’s the Scottish Government going to do to help with education?”
Ed Mountain, Conservative MSP for the Highlands and islands, also warned last night that there must be public sector investment to ensure the region can cope with the industrial growth.
“If the schools and hospitals aren’t right, we’re not going to get all the knock-ons we need. People won’t want to come and work here,” he said.