After taking two major prizes at the 2020 Maritime UK Awards – the only Scottish winner – the Port of Cromarty Firth is looking to Freeport status as a key driver for its renewable energy ambitions as well as the wider economy of the region. By Anthony Harrington.

While 2020 was a year of significant challenges, for the Port of Cromarty Firth it was also one of huge achievement and economic opportunity.

The port continued to establish itself as a key economic driver not only in the Highlands and Scotland – generating an estimated £275 million a year for the economy – but also the UK and beyond.

Nowhere was its importance more evident than at this year’s Maritime UK Awards, a key barometer of success in the UK’s £46.1 billion maritime sector.

The port was not only the sole Scottish winner but walked away with two flagship awards – Coastal Powerhouse and, outstandingly, Business of the Year.

Both were incredibly well deserved and testament to years of hard work, as well as a dedication to carving a hugely lucrative new future for the port.

This future has at its heart the rapid expansion in renewable projects off Scotland’s shores, with offshore wind and floating offshore wind predicted to be worth as much as £26 billion to the economy over the next 50 years.

The port has now set its sights on Scotland’s path to a green economic recovery for which the Cromarty Firth, with its naturally sheltered deep waters, is uniquely positioned. It is at the heart of the majority of a host of future multi-billion pound offshore renewable energy projects, including the ScotWind leasing round which awards leases for future offshore wind developments.

This leasing round began inviting developers to register their interest back in June last year.

According to Crown Estate Scotland, the total investment expected to be generated could surpass £8bn. Paul Wheelhouse, the Scottish Minister for Energy, Connectivity, and the Islands, said at the time that ScotWind was a pivotal moment for the development of Scotland’s offshore wind sector.

Bob Buskie, Chief Executive of the Port of Cromarty Firth, agrees. He says: “The importance of these projects to the Cromarty Firth, and to Scotland’s economy more broadly, cannot be underestimated. They would bring skilled jobs and high-wage opportunities to the Highlands on a level not seen since the oil boom of the 1970s.”

The potential growth in offshore renewables have led to exciting plans putting the Port at the forefront of Opportunity Cromarty Firth, a dynamic partnership of private, public, and academic organisations, including Global Energy Group, The Highland Council, Inverness Harbour Trust and the University of the Highlands and Islands, working together with a supply chain of world-class energy sector companies.

Opportunity Cromarty Firth’s ambition is for the Cromarty Firth to become a Freeport, a post-Brexit economic growth strategy introduced by the UK Government proposing up to 10 Freeports being created, with three going to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland if suitable bids are forthcoming.

The creation of a Cromarty Firth Freeport would, according to OCF, result in a pipeline of well-paid, sustainable jobs and significant supply chain opportunities for the Highlands built primarily around a green economy.

This ambition moved a significant step closer last week when the Scottish Government gave its support to the Freeport concept, allowing interested Scottish ports to bid for Freeport status and become a ‘green port’ – bringing with it significant benefits, including tax incentives and customs reliefs.

Not only that, but green port status would also allow the movement and processing of raw materials and semi-finished goods within their boundaries without incurring tariffs or taxes until they move into the wider UK economy. This would enable manufacturers to add value and transport the goods around the world without incurring UK taxes. The unique operational, regulatory and customs rules governing a Freeport make them attractive locations for inward investors.

Buskie says: “Achieving green port status would be a game changer for Port of Cromarty Firth, the Highlands, and for Scotland. It would see us capitalise on the 50-year pipeline of multi-billion pound offshore renewable energy developments taking place off our shores, securing sustainable and quality jobs and business opportunities.

“It would also attract inward investment to the area and generate new skilled jobs in manufacturing for offshore wind. These opportunities don’t end there, as we have ambitions to lead international developments in floating offshore wind and green hydrogen technologies.

“Green port status will help us to maximise the opportunities in offshore renewables, by encouraging the growth and development of companies around the Cromarty Firth. This would ensure that more work is completed in Scotland rather than being imported from overseas.”

Buskie points out that some of the activities around the ScotWind programme are already beginning. “We have signed a letter of intent with IDEOL – a global leader in floating offshore wind – to create a serial production facility for floating offshore wind foundations in Invergordon.

“Plans are also in place for a North of Scotland Hydrogen hub, while a site has also been earmarked to set up a global centre of R&D excellence, called The Power House, in conjunction with the University of the Highlands and Islands, aimed at ensuring Scotland becomes a world leader in future renewable energy technologies. The Power House will be housed at Tern House, in Alness Point Business Park, Easter Ross, and will bring together the foremost specialist groups in the country and beyond.”

These plans already build on more than £50 million of investment at the Port of Cromarty Firth in infrastructure expansions over the past six years, aligned to the requirements of the offshore renewables industry. Indeed, total investment in the Cromarty Firth’s infrastructure is now over £100m in the past ten years.

These investments are set to continue as the Cromarty Firth establishes itself as a strategic national renewable energy hub – a proposition for which the Port is uniquely positioned. Incorporating nearby facilities, this renewable energy hub would offer first-class infrastructure, significant land availability and world-leading supply chain expertise.

With regards to the impact of the pandemic on the Port, Buskie says everyone has adapted extremely well to the new operating environment.

He explains: “As the Scottish Government classified port and harbour employees as ‘key workers’, the Port remained open 24x7. We put in place strict health and safety control measures to ensure all of our stakeholders, including staff and local communities, were protected.”

For the Port itself, it has already charted a course away from the rougher economic seas of 2020 towards the calmer waters of prosperity in 2021 and beyond.


To read our full 2021 Ports Review, click here.