At least 150 Highland jobs have been saved and hundreds more could be created after a buyer was secured for Rio Tinto’s sites in the region.
A deal has been struck to sell the company’s operations to SIMEC for a total of £330million – safeguarding the future of the Lochaber assets.
Last night, politicians from across the region heralded the “great news” that the smelter and hydroelectric facilities would be kept open.
It emerged in January that global mining giant Rio Tinto was conducting a “strategic review” of its Highland assets.
The move plunged the future of jobs at the historic smelter into doubt.
About 170 staff work at the multinational firm’s Fort William aluminium smelter – the last of its kind in the UK and dating back to the 1920s – and hydroelectric plant in Kinlochleven, making it one of the biggest private employers in the Highlands.
SIMEC’s intention is that the smelter will be operated by the Liberty House Group, its sister company within the international GFG Alliance.
Relieved staff at the site in Fort William welcomed the news yesterday.
John Sandison, a maintenance worker at the plant, said: “I have been there 33 years now.
“The vibe we are getting is all positive just now. We are getting a presentation tomorrow at lunch time to give us a better idea of what their plans are.
“Anything is better than closing the place.
“They are talking about creating a large number of jobs. We are just a bit wary because it all sounds too good to be true. But there is no point in being negative about it.”
Another worker, who did not want to be named, said: “It is a positive announcement. They are talking about actually expanding rather than cutting back.
“For the community it is a positive thing. It is good for all the local businesses which rely on this place.
“I have worked here for 5 years.”
The Scottish Government’s Rural Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing helped broker the deal.
He said: “I am delighted at this news from Rio Tinto.
“The sale of both the smelter and hydro power station increases the chance of the site having a viable, long-term future.
“This is great news for the whole local community and especially for the workers at the smelter. Subject to all necessary agreed processes, the deal implemented will safeguard 150 jobs and has the potential to create hundreds more.”
GFG Alliance strategic board executive chairman Sanjeev Gupta said described the purchase as a “significant boost” to the company’s renewable operations.
He added: “This is a natural next step for us in our Scottish investment programme and is a springboard for wider manufacturing growth, creating many more jobs in Scotland.”
Welcoming the news, constituency MSP for Lochaber Kate Forbes said: “My hope was always to preserve jobs and continue operations at the smelter, but I think that Liberty House’s ambitions for the smelter could put Fort William in the driving seat of industrial expansion, career opportunities and sustainable economic growth.”
The agreement includes a payment on completion of £180million, plus an additional payment of £150million not later than February 28 next year.
Scottish Conservative Highlands and Islands MSP Donald Cameron said: “I am delighted that the future of the aluminium smelter in Lochaber will be secured and the many local people who work at the site will continue to be employed.
“The fact that GFG Alliance has stepped in to secure both the Fort William and Kinlochleven sites gives me great hope for the future”.