Investment is setting up the city for take-off

With a population of around 63,000, Inverness is one of the UK’s smallest cities, but it punches above its weight economically and is of far more importance to the wider Highland region than mere size might suggest. The city’s dynamism saw its population rise 18 per cent between the 2001 and 2011 censuses. “I would not be surprised if we saw another 10 per cent growth in population between 2011 and 2021,” says Stuart Black, director of planning and development at Highland Council, which is headquartered in the city. The council has a key responsibility for making one of the most diverse regions in the UK a better place to live and work, and future growth in Inverness is an important element in meeting those aspirations.

“Inverness is the most northerly city in Scotland and, as such, can deliver benefits to the region that other cities just can- not,” says Martin Johnson, area manager with the state development agency Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE).

“It has critical mass, a population size that supports, for example, a shopping, dining and night- life experience that other parts of the region can- not match. Its road, rail, air and sea connections are also important, as is its diversity of housing stock. It helps to attract and retain young people in the region. Typically, young people want to meet other young people, and Inverness offers them pubs, clubs, jobs and education.”

Inverness also hosts regional headquarters of key public sector organisations such as Highland Council, NHS Highland and HIE. These provide jobs of a nature and scale not found any- where else in the region. The presence of Scottish Natural Heritage, the Scottish Government’s environment agency, adds a national headquarters to this list.

“Having a strong base of office-based employment in the public sector has been important,” Stuart Black says. “And Raigmore Hospital is probably the largest employer, at around 3,000 jobs.” Lawyers, accountants, banks and other commercial businesses have regional offices in the city. “We have attracted more of these from central Scotland over the past decade,” Mr Black notes, “for example the law firm Harper Macleod.”

HIE helped to attract the largest single inward investment the city has ever seen, up to 500 new jobs with Capgemini, one of the world’s fore- most providers of consulting, technology and outsourcing services. “We expect to see further investment by financial services providers attracted by the workforce and because of Inverness’s growing reputation as a good place to come and do business,” Martin Johnson says.

Significant private investment has gone into tourism – including national brands such as Premier Inn, which has four budget hotels in Inverness – and local investors such as Tony Story, who built up Patio Hotels in Aberdeen then bought the Kingsmills Hotel in Inverness, which has opened as a new conferencing venue. “The hotel’s occupancy rate in February was reported to be nearly 100 per cent,” Stuart Black says.

“It is attracting short-stay business trips and also works closely with the Castle Stuart golf links.” The Castle Stuart, Nairn, and Royal Dornoch golf courses work together to attract high-net- worth visitors, particularly Americans, and use an umbrella marketing channel, golfhighland. com The city’s domestic air links have also im- proved. EasyJet flies to Gatwick, Luton and Bristol, while Flybe runs to Belfast, Benbecula, Birmingham, Jersey, Kirkwall, Manchester, Stornoway and Sumburgh. “All of this helps the short-stay and business market,” Mr Black says.

Foreign routes include KLM to global hub Amsterdam, Flybe to Geneva, Aer Lingus to the US and Canada via Dublin, Etihad to the Middle East via Manchester, and Cathay Pacific to Asia via Manchester. As a flagship for the area’s growing knowledge- based businesses, LifeScan Scotland is also the largest life sciences employer in Scotland, with around 1,200 staff.

Its Inverness site is parent company Johnson & Johnson’s global research and development centre for blood glucose monitoring and diagnostic kits. Martin Johnson believes there is “encouraging evidence” of life sciences businesses showing interest in locating on the new Inverness Campus site.

“They are of a modest scale that we can accommodate in terms of the available workforce and skills,” he says, “but it is a scale from which they can grow.” In the wider travel-to-work area, the oil and gas and renewables fabrication yard at Global Energy Group’s Nigg Energy Park is pro­viding significant employment and train­ing opportunities.

Renewable energy in­vestments in the Highlands and Islands have boosted construction jobs, with many of the companies involved – such as civil engineers RJ MacLeod in Dingwall – hav­ing their operational bases in or around In­verness.  Planning consent has been given to convert the 400-acre Port of Ardersier site near Inverness for offshore windfarm fabrication.

Energy company SSE has increased its workforce significantly in Inverness and collaborates with Inverness College – part of the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) – on apprenticeships. It is working locally to upgrade the Beauly-to-Denny high-voltage interconnector, an important addition to Scotland’s electric­ity grid, and also on a 100-mile transmis­sion line across the Moray Firth between Caithness and Moray. This involves sub­stantial onshore infrastructure with com­pletion scheduled for 2018.

Highland Council’s planning and eco­nomic development wings play vital roles in readying Inverness for future growth. Through them, and in close partnership with other organisations such as HIE, the council is an enabler for companies and or­ganisations attracted to investing in a fast-growing urban area.

While the opening of the Inverness Campus provides the city and region with a flagship location and fa­cilities to spur enterprise, innovation and education, other less glamorous but never­theless vital infrastructure improvements continue to be made. These include public and private investment in road, rail and telecommunications.

Highland Council recently approved £42 million to complete a southern dis­tributor road around the city, which will enable a key priority, namely further new housing. “It will allow around 2,000 houses to be built, connect peripheral communi­ties directly with sports and recreation fa­cilities, and relieve congestion in the city centre,” Stuart Black says. Site work starts this autumn. The first phase will include a new crossing of the River Ness and the en­tire programme is planned to be completed in the financial year 2019-20.

Highland Council and HIE are also working closely together on the East Link Road, which would link the A9 and A96 arterial routes to Perth and Aberdeen re­spectively. This would allow the building of still more houses, up to 3,000 according to Mr Black.

Martin Johnson adds: “We understand the role of the public sector in enabling the private sector to grow, and we work closely with the council to enable the growth of the city. We are two sides of the same coin.”

Complete upgrading of the A9 to dual carriageway starts this summer, with a completion date of 2025. Dualling of the A96 is timetabled to be completed by 2030. “We would like to see these com­pleted more quickly,” Mr Black says, “but the design work is progressing.” Both projects are funded nationally.

Housebuilders from outside the area are starting to show strong interest in its capacity to attract people who want and can afford new homes. Aberdeen-based Stewart Milne Homes plans to build 89 mainly four- and five-bedroom homes at Ness Castle East, and the company re­cently met tradespeople and subcontrac­tors in Inverness to outline the oppor­tunities. Barratt Homes has also chosen Ness Castle for a development of two-, three- and four-bedroom homes.

Home ownership in Inverness was 66 per cent in the 2011 Census, while 31 per cent of the population rented. The aver­age house price was £159,500 in 2013, according to a Highland Council analysis of Scottish Government / Land Valuation Information Unit data. The average rent that year was roughly £610 per month, based on Highland Council’s mid-year snapshot of internet sources including let­ting agents and the Gumtree website. The home ownership and rental markets are set to benefit from the growth of the UHI in Inverness.

“The planned growth of UHI is also generating interest in terms of the jobs it will create and among retail investors who see Inverness as quite a strong mar­ket because the nearest sizeable competitor [Aberdeen] is 100 miles away,” Mr Black says. “This interest is not so much from su­permarkets as from niche specialists such as those targeting tourism and outdoor ac­tivities markets.”

Most of the city can now buy into su­perfast broadband, and availability is roll­ing out further to peripheral housing and industrial estates. Tens of thousands of homes in the Highlands and Islands can already buy faster and more reliable inter­net services because of telecom operator BT’s roll-out of fibre broadband under the £410m Digital Scotland Superfast Broad­band partnership. These companies and households can now access broadband ser­vices with download speeds up to 80 mega­bits per second (Mbps).

Through the £146m Digital Highlands and Islands Project (DHIP), HIE aims to help meet national and European ac­cess targets for broadband. These are laid down by the European Commission, along with the UK and Scottish Governments. The DHIP’s goal is for everyone in the Highlands and Islands to be able to access broadband download speeds of at least 30 Mbps by 2020.

Dutch rail operator Abellio, which now runs ScotRail services, is to spend up to £3m to upgrade Inverness station and is working to complete a feasibility study by March 2016. A new rail halt at Dalcross is planned for March 2019 to serve Inverness airport, and forms part of Network Rail’s plans to upgrade rail links on the 108-mile Inverness to Aberdeen route in a £250m to £500m phased programme stretching out to 2030 and designed to cut travel times and improve service regularity.

To put it all in perspective, look back a few decades. “Inverness is on a much better footing than 30 years ago,” says Councillor Thomas Prag, chair of Highland Council’s development and infrastructure commit­tee. “When I arrived in the early 1980s, the city’s ambition was to become a place that locally born people could return to in the knowledge that they would find the kind of work and life that they wanted.”

Skilled and professional jobs were thin on the ground at the time. “That has changed,” Cllr Prag says. “We have long known that people who come to the area for the first time tend to want to stay, and some create new jobs. Growth, improved facilities and the arrival of better jobs means we are also now seeing people com­ing back.”

For a region once cursed with depopu­lation, that is the most pleasing perspec­tive of all.