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What’s ahead: The future of business in the north

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As 2020 gets under way, Peter Ranscombe gazes into his crystal ball to explore important milestones coming up in the year ahead

January 31: Brexit day

Let’s get the “big one” out the way first. Barring any last-minute obstacles, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement Bill will pass through the Houses of Parliament and receive royal assent, leaving the path clear for the UK to cease being a member of the European Union (EU) at 11pm on January 31.

Then the real work begins. The UK has an 11-month transition period in which to negotiate a trade deal with the EU, otherwise the two markets will revert to World Trade Organisation rules after Hogmanay, leading to tariffs.

Negotiators have said a full deal is not possible, but temporary arrangements could be put in place.

The UK has until July 1 to request a one or two-year extension to the transition period, but Johnson has already pledged not to extend the timescale for departure. Watch this space.

January 31: Choppy waters

The current extension to the Northern Isles ferry services comes to an end at the close of this month, amid legal wranglings over the awarding of the next £450 million contract for the lifeline links.

Serco was selected for a six-year contract to carry on running the services between Aberdeen and Scrabster, Orkney and Shetland back in September, but the deal was challenged by Pentland Ferries, while state-owned CalMac launched legal proceedings after not being given details of the scoring system used by Scottish ministers during the tendering process.

Islands Minister Paul Wheelhouse extended the current contract in October by three months.

February 19-20: Competitive advantage

Eleanor Shaw, professor of entrepreneurship and head of the Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship at Strathclyde University in Glasgow, will be venturing to Inverness next month to deliver Highlands and Islands Enterprise’s latest masterclass.

During the two-day course at the Kingsmills Hotel, Shaw – an expert in marketing – will explain how companies can create and maintain a competitive advantage and look at some of the tools available to businesses.

Shaw gained her doctorate from Glasgow University in 1997 and served as director of Durham University Business School’s master’s degree in entrepreneurship programme before joining Strathclyde in 2001.

March 3: Changing tack

One of the biggest opportunities for businesses working in the oil and gas industry is to examine whether their skills and equipment could translate through to the growing offshore renewable energy sectors, including wind turbines and wave and tidal devices.

After Scotland faced up to the escalating climate emergency by committing itself to a net-zero economy by 2045, the days of fossil fuels are dwindling.

Experts from the Carbon Trust, the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult and Scottish Enterprise will be at Aberdeen Maritime Museum in March to discuss which vessels will be needed to service offshore wind turbines, including supply chain opportunities.

March 6: Whisky wars

Amid all the clatter surrounding Brexit, it’s easy to forget an equally pressing threat to Scotland’s economy – the ongoing trade war between the European Union (EU) and the United States.

US President Donald Trump’s administration slapped a 25% import tariff on Scotch whisky on October 18 and unveiled plans on December 12 to increase that tax to 100%, with a consultation on the proposals closing last week.

News of the potential increase came just days after the World Trade Organisation (WTO) found in America’s favour in the ongoing tit-for-tat retaliations over state subsidies for Airbus.

The EU lodged a further appeal on December 6, on which the WTO is due to rule by March.

But the situation became more complicated the following week when the WTO’s appeals body stopped accepting new cases after the US blocked the appointment of judges and called for a wholesale review of the appeals process.

A timely reminder of how messy trade wars can get.

March 11: Budget bother

One of the knock-on effects of the UK’s delayed exit from the European Union and last month’s Westminster general election was the postponement of Chancellor Sajid Javid’s maiden Budget, which had been due to take place on November 6.

One politician keener than most to find out what’s in Javid’s red box is Scottish Finance Secretary Derek Mackay. The Scottish Government last month postponed the publication of its own budget from December 12 until “after Christmas”.

Time is marching on – Javid has now picked March 11, which was the deadline for local authorities to set their council tax rates. Cue the Benny Hill theme at Holyrood as the Scottish Parliament tries to pass a budget bill before the end of the month.

May 31: A9 dualling

Anyone who has had to venture south from the Highlands to Perth over the past few years can’t help but have noticed the ongoing £3 billion programme to upgrade the A9 from single to dual carriageways.

Thirty miles of the road between Inverness and Perth already has two lanes, but the remaining 80 miles will be upgraded by 2025 under the target set for Transport Scotland by the Scottish Government.

The next key milestone comes on May 31, when the traffic order runs out for that wee mini-roundabout near the Bankfoot South junction on the Luncarty to Pass of Birnam section.

September 21: Business week

Inverness Chamber of Commerce will kick off its annual Highland Business Week on September 21, with a series of events including seminars and networking sessions.

One of the highlights will be the Highland Spotlight Business Exhibition, which takes place at the Kingsmills Hotel in Inverness on September 22, with space for 65 exhibitors and the promise of bringing together buyers and suppliers for products and services.

Rounding off the eighth week of events will be the Highland Business Awards at Inverness’s Drumossie Hotel on September 25, with prizes being handed out in 12 categories.

November 20-21: Goodbye Elton

Long journeys sitting in the back of a Volvo 240 estate would not have been the same without an Elton John tape whirring on the cassette player.

Now, it’s time to bid goodbye to the veteran singer-songwriter as his Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour rolls into the P&J Live in Aberdeen for two nights in November.

Big-name concerts such as Elton’s final tour are a great opportunity for small businesses – whether it is accommodation providers or food and drink outlets, there’s the chance to cash-in on visitors coming to the city.

Maybe there’s even room for an Elton John-themed cocktail on the menu or a “Crocodile Rock” disco night in the bar?

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