The Scottish Parliament has been urged to work more closely with the business community to help address issues where the country needs to improve.
The Parliament turns 20 next year and the advice to the ‘mere youth’ was offered by Stewart Nicol, chief executive of Inverness Chamber of Commerce, during a Holyrood reception to mark the organisation’s 125th anniversary.
Almost 50 guests, including MSPs, Highlands and Islands Enterprise chief executive Charlotte Wright, representatives from chamber groups from across Scotland & UK and members of the wider business community, attended the event, which was sponsored by Inverness and Nairn MSP Fergus Ewing.
Mr Nicol, who led an Inverness Chamber delegation, including president Liam Christie, at the reception, told the gathering that much had been achieved during the Parliament’s two decades, but there are still areas for improvement.
Firstly, he suggested, there is too much of a ‘Central-Belt focus’ in Holyrood. St Andrews-born, Falkirk-reared and Edinburgh University-educated, he understands the area, but has since worked and lived elsewhere.
“In doing so I have experienced the dynamic innovation and entrepreneurship which exists beyond the Central Belt, particularly as those parts of Scotland have had to overcome the challenges of being distant and having fewer people.
“We have huge natural resources as a nation and most of that lies outwith this locale. Most of our stunning natural beauty and wildlife, which attracts tourists from across the world, exists in places that many people in the Central Belt have never visited.”
Mr Nicol, who marked ten years with Inverness Chamber this year, making him the longest serving chief executive in the Scottish chamber network, raised particular concerns about transport and IT infrastructure in the Highlands.
He said the road network, largely outwith the Central Belt, needs a significant upgrade. Whilst welcoming the Scottish Government’s commitment to dual 80 miles of the A9 Perth-Inverness trunk road to dual carriageway by 2025, he reminded the audience that half way through the timescale only five miles (6 per cent) has been dualled.
At the same time, nothing has been done on the commitment to upgrade the A96 Inverness-Aberdeen route.
He repeated his assertion that the Highland Main Line (HML), the Inverness-Edinburgh rail route, remains ‘not fit for purpose’.
“We are aware of how much has been invested in the rail infrastructure across the Central Belt and, indeed, to upgrade rail connectivity between the Central Belt and London, resulting in much improved journey times. It would therefore seem reasonable for us Highlanders to aspire to travel at the same speed between Inverness and the Central Belt?”
If the HML received the same level of funding, journey times would be halved, he suggested. Instead, a three per cent reduction is expected once refurbished 40-year old rolling stock comes onto the HML.
The shortcomings in surface travel, makes air connectivity so vital for the Highlands, Mr Nicol continued. Inverness Chamber of Commerce has been at the forefront of the campaign to increase services to Heathrow.
“The case made by Heathrow has been compelling, not just for Inverness and the Highlands, but for the whole of Scotland. This vital airlink was re-established two years ago, largely because of my personal input and our campaigning as a chamber of commerce.
“It has since proven to be BA’s best performing domestic route. The number of flights have this year been increased by 40 per cent and I am working to improve this even further.”
Mr Nicol also urged the government to ‘do the right thing for our businesses’ and completely remove Air Departure Tax (ADT) or Air Passenger Duty (APD) for the benefit of international trade and national economy.
He added: “Transport and digital connectivity will long be on our agenda I suspect. With the rapid development of artificial intelligence and robotics, some of our future influence will be in areas we can’t imagine today.”
The audience heard the important role played by Inverness Chamber of Commerce in connecting businesses, lobbying for better services and offering advice and support to members. It also delivers the Scottish Government’s employer-led DYW Regional Group for Inverness and Central Highland, which aims to bring about real and lasting cultural change for the benefit of the region’s young people, their parents, teachers and SME’s which make up the bulk of the Highland’s business community.
As part of the Scottish and British chambers network, it ensures the Highlands has a strong voice in Holyrood and Westminster. It also offers a range of international trade services, consultancy, bespoke support and advice aimed at helping Highland businesses to grow internationally.
“Indeed, I firmly believe that the Scottish Chambers of Commerce and British Chambers of Commerce made up of their respective local chambers are uniquely and strongly placed to help both the Scottish and UK Governments to achieve their international ambitions”, said Mr Nicol. “The chambers across Scotland and the UK comprise the most effective and strongest network of businesses and our connectivity to similar networks across the globe is unsurpassed.”
But he said, the successes do not hide the fact improvements can be made locally and that there are too many examples of things taking too long to change or the solutions are unacceptable.
“In such a small and well-formed business and civic environment, too many of us seem to have an appalling capacity to operate within deeply ingrained silos. Neither do we set high enough standards for ourselves, our organisations and our civic space.
“I cannot help but apply these self-same sentiments to this Parliament and indeed the nation of Scotland. We are doing well but I strongly believe we should, and could, be doing so much better.”
He concluded: “The Parliament must have a closer working relationship with business in Scotland. The debacle over business rates over the last year has demonstrated clearly that there is much room for improvement. The SCC network has proven, and will continue to do so, that we can deliver for our politicians and public sector partners in a way that no-one else can.
“I recently stated my strong belief that to move the Highlands and city of Inverness forward, all of us in business and the civic space need to have high personal and organisational ambitions.
“The same applies to Scotland and this Scottish Parliament. All of us need to demonstrate strong leadership and we need to collaborate, perhaps in a way we have never done thus far.”