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Weekly update, 5th November 2012

Scottish & Southern Energy (SSE) this week announced the signing of a Partnership Agreement with the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI). SSE is a key player in the development of the energy sector in the north, both as a developer and generator of renewable energy. Through its transmission and power distribution companies it also has the lead role in enhancing the grid infrastructure of the north. Recent public information days in Caithness have highlighted the evolving plans to upgrade the electricity grid in the north, and SSE has emphasised its commitment to ensuring that employment opportunities for communities in the north are maximised. The Partnership Agreement with UHI will focus on developing the skills needed for this long-term work programme. North Highland College will play a key role in developing and delivering workstreams through this Partnership Agreement.

Business Services:
Following the announcement two weeks ago that AON Hewitt had purchased the Pensions Administration Office business from Babcock, the Socio-economic Subgroup of the Dounreay Stakeholder Group met this week with a senior AON Hewitt representative and heard welcome confirmation of the company’s intentions to grow the pensions administration business from its existing Caithness base, with the potential to create further employment opportunities in the local economy. The company undertook to maintain dialogue with local representatives.

Tourism/ Food & Drink:
Clarenco, the owners of Ackergill Tower, have had local press coverage this week as they announce that the business has achieved 5-Star accreditation from Visitscotland. Ackergill has for many years enjoyed an international reputation for “exclusive use” business, but also now offers accommodation to visitors as a luxury hotel. The business has had significant new investment since it was purchased by Clarenco in 2009, and is the first hotel in Caithness to achieve a 5-Star rating. Members of the Wick John O’Groats Airport Consultative Committee saw at first hand last week from General Manager Nigel Bird the ongoing work to develop facilities at Ackergill, including the new “Summer Palace” event space and the development of additional accommodation in the former Stables block.

I also met this week with colleagues from HIE, Caithness Chamber, North Highland Initiative and Dounreay to agree next steps with developing the detailed forward plan for the “Ambitious for Tourism: Caithness & North Sutherland” programme.

Enabling activities:
The Chairman, Board members and senior staff from Highlands & Islands Airports Ltd were in Caithness this week, and I was able to meet and discuss issues relating to Wick John O’Groats Airport. Particularly good to see the productive work currently going on between Far North Aviation and HIAL to bring new business into the area through the airport, and similarly good to see the positive views on growth potential expressed by senior staff from Clarenco, the owners of Ackergill Tower (see Tourism Food & Drink above).

As part of an ongoing process of helping communicate progress with the delivery of aspects of our economic transition programme CNSRP’s partners work together to generate news stories for local, regional and national media. I also speak on a regular basis to individuals and organisations across the area to update on progress. This week:

  • The AGM of the North Highland Regeneration Fund (NHRF) took place today (Friday). The Fund was set up with financial support from the NDA and assists business start-up and growth through loan finance. NHRF Chairman John Thurso MP reported to the AGM audience that the company has so far helped local companies create or secure 243 jobs. Management of the Fund has recently been taken over by Caithness Chamber of Commerce.