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"Don't forget The Highlands!" by Stewart Nicol, Chief Executive of Inverness Chamber of Commerce - Edinburgh meeting of Tuesday 17 January 2017

Stewart Nicol, Chief Executive of Inverness Chamber of Commerced

Stewart Nicol, Chief Executive of Inverness Chamber of Commerce

© John Yellowlees 2016

With family roots in Nth Lanarkshire, born in St Andrews via Birmingham and Falkirk, Stewart Nicol came north with the old Hydro Board initially to Aberdeen where he experienced weekly the shortcomings of the A90, and then in 1994 to Inverness as district manager heading up a team of engineers, where he needed negotiating and media skills and found for the first time the excitement of being in charge.

Leaving Scottish Hydro in 2000 on the merger into SSE, he joined Cap Gemini and then went into consultancy, never making any money out of that and learning to hate Dundee and Perth Stations with a vengeance on his weekly commute home which remained Inverness.

All of the islands had at one time or another been in his domain while at Hydro, and he had joined Inverness Chamber of Commerce in the mid-2000s - so it was to his delight when in 2008 the Chamber took the courageous decision to appoint the first full-time Chief Executive since its inception in 1893, and chose himself.

The Chamber is wholly independent and self-funding, being an arm of neither HIE nor Highland Council, and in his time membership has grown from 300 to 450 companies or other organisations. With a turnover last year of £340,000, it made a small profit which it ploughed back into the development of its activities, having relocated from aroom above a garage at the bottom of a garden to a city-centre office and increased its staff from 2 to 12.

A self-confessed nice guy but passionate, Stewart is enthusiastic about connecting Highland businesses and about supporting his members, lobbying on their behalf for planning applications and on issues such as pressing BT to improve broadband connectivity, for example. Taking care never to miss an opportunity to comment, he can be pretty hard hitting, saying things that his members cannot say, but always tries to be balanced, striking a balance between for example town-centre developments and retail parks.

Messaging is important, and even tonight's title "Don't forget the Highlands" can be seen as unduly negative since the Highlands are important and it ought not to be possible to forget them! On air connectivity everyone in the Highland community came together when EasyJet threatened to pull their Inverness-Gatwick route. Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd. had to be careful in what it said, but no such inhibition applied to Stewart. Inverness is one of Scotland's 26 Chambers, giving him a countrywide network through which to lobby, and accredited to British Chambersof Commerce gave him the opportunity to get people up from Heathrow and Gatwick Airports up to hear the Highlands' case on airport expansion.

His five columns a month in business journals across the Highlands gave him a platform, and eighteen months after seeing no prospect of Inverness flights returning to Heathrow within a decade, British Airways announced their resumption after an absence of twenty years. Such a result is never down to luck, always a reward for hard work, and BA said that the support of the business community made it an easy decision to reinstate what is now their best-performing domestic route.

Nor did EasyJet collapse as a consequence, instead they are putting on more flights to address a market that is growing for all, and the Chamber went on, working with partners, to win its next campaign to save the Highland Chieftain during East Coast refranchising. It's all about location, and Inverness is a great place to live, with North Coast 500 providing an impressive new attraction and Nessie representing a global brand who always manages to put in an appearance at the start of the tourist season! Putting out the right message means using what you've got, and drawing on strengths such as whisky and golf the Highland economy is pretty darned good, with 10% of the Scottish population which in turn is 10% of the UK. 65% of the Highland population lives in the Inner Moray Firth, and Inverness's jobs portfolio includes diabetes research, global energy, life sciences and the new University of the Highlands and Islands.

On nearly every indicator, the City is doing better than the Scottish average, and for six weeks last year Inverness Caley Thistle and Ross County were holders of both Scottish cups, which is an important attribute for a place's self-esteem. Local courses Royal Dornoch, Castle Stuart and Nairn Dunbarare world-class in golf, and in order to develop the capacity of the tourist sector Inverness Chamber is hosting a Scottish Government programme for Developing the Young Workforce as part of a framework of regional employer-led boards across Scotland.

The fastest growing city for years in Europe, Inverness is up there with the best for quality of life, but its transport infrastructure is no longer fit for purpose and thus lets the show down. An American investor marvelling at the lack of a central reservation on the A9 insisted that it was a tourist route and there must be a proper road on the other side of the hill! Stewart can't remember when he last travelled on business by car between Inverness and the Central Belt, where parking is impossible and why drive when he can work en route on his laptop, but trains on the largely single-track Highland Main Line are often late or overcrowded. A £15.40 Standard Class return might be good value with a Club 50 card, but £108 in First Class is a lot to pay for a free coffee! On his wife's last journey in admittedly filthy weather, the train ran two hours late and terminated at Perth.

"It doesn't have to be like this" is the deep sense that runs through Stewart's head, and he is astounded when he looks at what is happening elsewhere. Take Edinburgh-Glasgow, with the main line now being electrified providing a quarter-hourly service that is just one of four routes between the cities. It seems that everywhere is being transformed except north of Perth, with Inverness's service of just 2 trains a day to London contrasting with Edinburgh's 32, which makes one wonder why anyone would fly that route.

It takes as long to get from Glasgow to Inverness as it does from Glasgow to London, over twice the distance, and he found Virgin Trains currently offering a First Class one-way fare of just £50. The new Edinburgh Gateway Station is impressive, but why burden Inverness trains with stops there when Aberdeen ones don't call? And just contrast the hugely-improved Haymarket Station with the long wait at Inverness for any improvement.

Stewart is not prepared to accept that these contrasts have to be so. They are why he gets angry, and Scotland has no business forgetting the Highlands if the country as a whole is to fulfil its potential as a great place to place to live and work. Stewart finished his presentation by revealing that the North Lanarkshire family roots are in the small village of Caldercruix, some 5 miles east of Airdrie. The village received a brand new shiny railway station when the Airdrie - Bathgate railway line was reinstated in 2010. This vital connection, Stewart reflected, has the potential to utterly transform the socially and economically challenged community of "Cruix". Quite simply, Stewart concluded, an appropriate rail connection to Inverness and further north and west has to potential to transform the Inverness and Highland economies.

Report and photograph by John Yellowlees.


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