On 13th January the UK Government announced the two successful Scottish bids for freeport status. One is the Forth Green Freeport but the other has many implications for the Far North Line and its residents, businesses and visitors: The Inverness & Cromarty Firth Green Freeport includes the ports of Invergordon and Nigg, as well as the Port of Inverness and Inverness Airport. The successful bid was led by Opportunity Cromarty Firth (OCF), a partnership of organisations including participants from industry, academia and the public sector. The list includes the port authorities, Inverness Airport Business Park, HITRANS, The Highland Council, organisations such as Inverness Chamber of Commerce and companies ranging from local businesses to Scottish Power Renewables and Shell. It is now their task to set up the governance structure needed to run the new freeport.
The Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe) explains the potential benefits as:
OCF explains that the focus of the bid was on the opportunities from offshore renewables and green hydrogen, aiming to maximise the business opportunities and employment for the region.
The mechanism and rules for setting up the freeport have been agreed by the UK and Scottish Governments. The key policies and reliefs that companies and local authorities within the Green Freeports can benefit from include:
The Scottish Green Party however does not accept the freeport model, commenting that, "Freeports are mini tax havens where big corporations can get off the hook from paying their fair share" and "When freeports have been tried in the past across the UK, they only made regional inequality worse by moving jobs around the country rather than creating new ones."
Given the chronic problem of depopulation in the Highlands the establishment of the Inverness & Cromarty Firth Green Freeport should be good news for the area, and in turn good news for the Far North Line. Fortunately the railway is already there to be developed and used. Possibilities include a rail freight terminal at Invergordon, perhaps using the old aluminium smelter site, as well as the extension of overhead electrification from Inverness to Tain, as listed in Transport Scotland's Rail Decarbonisation Plan. This, along with HML electrification and loading gauge enhancements, would provide a valuable freight link from the freeport area to the rest of Scotland. The Far North Line also requires some new capacity in the form of additional passing loops, such as the planned loop at Delmore near Inverness. A much improved electric train service between Tain and Inverness would provide access to rail for the new housing which will be required. Alness, Invergordon and Evanton are likely to see new homes built, and the long requested station at the latter may well come to fruition.
It is very important that the new freeport lives up to the 'Green' in its name and ensures that all planning is done with public transport and active travel at its heart.
The freeport developments at Invergordon and Inverness will inevitably involve considerable construction work. Now is the time to be planning how to make the most possible use of rail and sea transport for the inevitable increase in traffic this will cause.
The Cromarty Firth's ideal location for a state-of-the-art hydrogen hub has seen the establishment, through OCF, of the North of Scotland Hydrogen Programme. This is because of its proximity to a large-scale off-shore renewable electricity supply, and a high level of demand locally from industry, transport and domestic applications. The longer-term ambition is to develop the hub to produce, store and distribute green hydrogen at scale not only to the region but to the rest of Scotland and other parts of the UK and Europe.