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Business Insight

INVERNESS FOCUS

Pushing for a great deal of difference The award of City Deal funding could be a £300m catalyst for the Highland capital, stimulating social and economic development, says Frank Simpson

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nverness is continuing to press its case to be awarded City Deal funding to help spur economic and social development in the city and the wider region. The UK Government invited the bid, and Highland Council has worked in partnership with the Scottish Government and Scottish Futures Trust to develop a strategic case for what the council believes could be up to £300 million in Government grants and locally devolved borrowing powers over a period of 20 years. The funds would come from the UK and Scottish Governments and from Highland Council itself. The Scottish Government has pledged funding for local consultation with the community as part of developing the bid. Highland Council maintains that securing the deal would be transformative in driving forward major infrastructure projects to boost innovation and jobs. For example, it is looking at projects that would unlock development land in places such as East Longman, immediately east of the A9, in anticipation of increased business interest in Inverness as the dualling of both that road and then the A96 progresses over the coming years. Other potential development sites include a campus at East Inverness and a business park near the airport at Dalcross. Other UK cities and metropolitan areas that have already been awarded such deals include Glasgow and the Clyde Valley, as well as a number in England. Aberdeen is also bidding for a City Deal in excess of £2 billion. The City Deal for Inverness was not signed off by the UK Government before the general election, despite being championed by Liberal Democrat MP Danny Alexander, who was Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Mr Alexander lost his Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey parliamentary seat in May, as a Conservative majority Government was elected to Westminster. Former Highland Council leader Drew Hendry now represents the constituency, but for the SNP which does not hold the balance of power at Westminster in the way the Liberal Democrats did. “It was a very important commitment by the previous Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition at Westminster,” says Councillor Thomas Prag, chair of Highland Council’s planning, development and infrastructure committee. “We

Great expectations undimmed: Highland Council’s Thomas Prag

would be very surprised and disappointed if that commitment was in any way pulled apart by the new Government.” The details of any deal that was in the offing before the general election might now change slightly, Cllr Prag acknowledges. “That said,” he adds, “our expectation is that it will still go ahead, and we are continuing talks with Cabinet Office and Treasury officials. “Even in the worst case scenario – if the deal did not come off – the detailed strategy work that has been done in developing the bid is still very important to us. The things we need to do on the infrastructure side will still need to be done. We would just have to find different ways of doing them, and it could take longer.” The sea change in UK politics brought about by the Conservative outright victory at Westminster and the landslide for the SNP in Scotland has left Inverness facing the same political uncertainties as other cities throughout the land. Greater tax and spending powers for the Scottish Government are on the way. These could be along the lines recommended by the Smith Commission set up after the Scottish independence referendum last September, or there could be an even greater transfer from Westminster to Holyrood of fiscal responsibilities for Scotland. A UK referendum on continued membership of the European Un-

ion also looms by 2017 if Prime Minister David Cameron is to keep to his previous pledge to sanction a vote if returned to power. The devolution bug is infectious. Areas within the Highland region itself are also seeking more input on policy-making. At a full meeting of Highland Council in May, there was broad agreement among political parties that it should be in the forefront of piloting new approaches to local democracy across the region. The council was called on to report back on viable options for local decision-making through stronger local representative and participative democracy. However, Cllr Prag argues that the message for investors is that they can expect stability and consistency in the approaches and aims of the main local players holding the levers of planning and development policy in Inverness and the wider Highland region. “The emphasis for us as a council will be to make sure that we continue our partnership approach whatever happens on the wider political stage,” he says. “We combine together as parties, with organisations such as Highlands and Islands Enterprise to take the politics out of it. We have the same aims when it comes to economic and social development and quality of life. We have to make sure that we maintain the same relationships with the UK and Scottish Governments, and just get on with it.” The councillor points out that Highland Council has itself been run by coalitions for the last two electoral cycles – its current administration is an SNP-led coalition with Labour and the Liberal Democrats. “So as long as we are left with the devolved powers in the Highlands to do things for ourselves locally,” he says, “then we will do that whatever is eventually agreed on the additional fiscal powers that will be devolved from Westminster to Edinburgh.” The possibility that the UK could vote to leave the EU stirs strong feelings in the Highlands, which has been a significant beneficiary of European funding for a wide range of social and economic purposes. The EU is also a key market for important Highland products such as food and drink, and visitors from Europe are a vital part of the tourism economy. “We understand the benefits of EU links perhaps better than most,” Cllr Prag says. “It is partly about being better able to invest in things that have social as well as economic benefits. But it is more than that. Inverness is quite a cosmopolitan, outward-looking city and welcomes people from all over the place.”

Moves that prove there’s life in the High Street yet

By Joseph Leftwich

Head of Business Development, Retail Management Consultants Ltd

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hen it comes to shopping, Inverness has a spring in its step. Lakeland is now well established in the Eastgate Centre, as is Scottish retail success story Ness, which is doing a brisk trade with its signature range of Scottish womenswear and accessories. Elsewhere, some fantastic independents are making their mark – Blend Tea & Coffee Merchants, the Isle of Skye Candle Company and Judith Glue among them. The Victorian Market is expecting a makeover, while the town centre is clearly benefiting from the focus provided by its Business Improvement District team. And to think that not so long ago we were pondering the death of the Great British high street. There is a deeply felt collective pride in our traditional town centres. They have a social and practical application, of course, but more than that they are full of nostalgia. Part-real, part-imagined, when we go to the shops we are returning to the busy tearooms, chatty mothers, jolly butchers, bakers and cobblers of our childhood. These places, characters and experiences are common to all Brits and have so much value and obvious commercial

potential that, really, we ought to have had more faith in our retail entrepreneurs than to think that our high streets might actually die. Inverness is, I think, evidence of this. Away from the high street, though, there has been a huge shift in how we shop. It’s almost too obvious to mention, but where once we bought only what was available in our towns and cities, we can now shop for everything from everywhere, online. That something so fundamental has happened so quickly, and without very much fuss, is a testament to how effectively we, as shoppers, are being sold to. And in this respect, Inverness is no slouch either with some fantastic online retail entrepreneurs doing some really interesting work. Magnus Houston launched Coast & Glen as an online retail business last year. Formerly a professional motorcycle racer, he discovered a passion for fishing while recovering from a careerending accident at just 24 years of age. Once out of his wheelchair he bought a boat and embarked on a new career selling lobster and crab first from his van and then directly to local restaurants. When diners began showing up at his premises hoping to buy direct, Mr Houston realised he needed a plan to satisfy demand. Based on a similar idea to the veg box, fresh seafood would be delivered directly to customers within 24 hours of being landed. And, like a veg box, customers receive only what’s in season and available – a neat way of protecting fish stocks and introducing seafood fans to new products. From 50 customers last June, Coast & Glen now ships to over 800, and has gone from three boxes per day to around 80 in just one year. So if you thought that traditional retailing was in trouble, here’s a fishmonger for the 21st century. And if you thought that Inverness was short of entrepreneurs, speak to Magnus Houston.

Profile for Smith Design Solutions

Business Insight Scotland 09/06/15  

Business Insight Scotland 09th June 2015

Business Insight Scotland 09/06/15  

Business Insight Scotland 09th June 2015

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