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Game changer or greenwash? Highland Council welcomes Cromarty freeport – with some trepidation

By Nicola Sinclair, Local Democracy Reporter

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Inverness and the Port of Cromarty Firth were awarded green freeport status in January.
Inverness and the Port of Cromarty Firth were awarded green freeport status in January.

Highland councillors lined up to celebrate the successful Inverness and Cromarty Firth green freeport bid at today’s meeting of the full council, though not everyone was convinced.

Convener Bill Lobban called it a “game changer” for the Highlands, and others highlighted the potential for jobs, infrastructure and services.

However Green councillor Chris Ballance also didn’t pull his punches, slamming the project as a “tax avoidance scheme”.

Cllr Ballance said his party is “sick and tired of greenwash”.

Other members welcomed the green freeport, but encouraged the consortium partners to work closely with local communities.

Cllr Lyndsey Johnston said the people of the Black Isle feel a mixture of “excitement and trepidation” as one of the main themes of today’s debate was the possibility of reversing population decline.

Cllr Ken Gowans said the word “transformational” is over-used, but in this case it’s truly apt.

“It has the potential to shape the lives of every person who lives and works in the Highland Council area,” he said of the freeport.

The job now, he added, is to translate shared vision into shared success.

Sutherland councillor Richard Gale agreed that the benefits could be felt much more widely than the Cromarty Firth and challenged the partners to “open up the Highlands” by using the economic boost to remove barriers to services and infrastructure.

This, plus job creation and supply chain opportunities, could reverse longstanding population decline across the Highlands it was suggested.

“People can come back home now and the young won’t want to go away,” Dingwall councillor Margaret Paterson said.

However, several councillors pressed the need for strong community engagement.

Cllr Alasdair Christie agreed that the Cromarty Firth green freeport could keep people in the Highlands, but said that must start with the right conversations.

“Communication and consultation are very different things,” he said.

He said the consortium partners needed to not only make the economic case for the green freeport, but the community case too.

It was a point that Cllr Ballance had also made: communication should be a two-way street.

On the same theme, councillor Tamala Collier asked for a community workshop, and Lyndsey Johnston highlighted concerns about the impact of industrialisation on small villages.

Overall, the tone of the chamber was upbeat. Councillors may not agree over the true green credentials of freeports, but there was a great deal of excitement over the scale of the opportunity.

The next few months will be crucial in shaping how that message lands across the diverse geography of the Highlands.

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