The man leading the project to bring a green freeport to the Highlands has insisted the £3 billion project could be a “game-changer” for reviving the local economy and “reverse the alarming decline” in the working-age population.

Last year, the Scottish and UK governments confirmed that Inverness and the Cromarty Firth would become one of two green freeports – alongside plans for the Forth.

A senior SNP minister has told The Herald he hopes the freeport can boost the economy of the Highlands and “make a real difference to the decline in the working age population” across the region.

Green freeports are zoned areas within a defined boundary which includes a rail, sea or airport.

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Operators and businesses in the zone can benefit from a package of tax and other incentives through a combination of devolved and reserved levers.

Writing exclusively for The Herald, Calum MacPherson, chief executive of the Inverness and Cromarty Firth Green Freeport, has insisted the project will be “a game-changer for the region”.

He added that the green freeport “provides the catalyst for the area” to become “the UK’s renewable energy powerhouse”.

The project is set to create thousands of new jobs and attract more than £3 billion of investment.

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Amid concerns over population decline in the Highlands, Mr MacPherson believes the freeport project could be an “unprecedented opportunity to reverse the alarming decline in the working-age population” across the region.

He added: “The scale of that opportunity was set out in Inverness and Cromarty Firth Green Freeport’s (ICFGF) outline business case, which was submitted to the Scottish and UK governments in October.

“The document identifies locations totalling around 550 hectares, which would become ‘tax sites”’, where businesses can benefit from a range of incentives.

“In total, the land, which includes areas on the shores of the Cromarty Firth, in the Highland capital and at Ardersier, amounts to the largest green energy development site in Europe.

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“Independent specialists, who interviewed landowners and potential investors forecast that, if tax site designation is granted for the minimum five years available, their development will lead to the creation of 10,250 new jobs in the Highlands over the next 25 years and a total of 16,500 across the UK.”

But Mr MacPherson has insisted that alongside “broader initiatives in the area” connected with the ramping up of green energy projects, “the levels of job creation will be even higher”.

He has pointed to the Scottish Government’s ScotWind leasing round announced in 2022 tallying up 20 offshore wind projects and investment of almost £30 billion Mr MacPherson added: “Green freeport status for the area, which has been supported from the outset by the green energy industry, presents us with the opportunity to maximise the lasting benefits to the Highlands, Scotland and the UK from these huge, long-term projects.

“It will accelerate economic growth and innovation, as well as growing and decarbonising the offshore energy industry.”

He has stressed that while the major benefits “will take a number of years to build”, the green freeport status is already having an impact.

Mr MacPherson said: “In recent weeks, the Highland Council approved plans by Japanese company Sumitomo to develop a cable manufacturing plant beside the Port of Nigg, on the Cromarty Firth.

“Jobs have already been created by ambitious Inverness-based company Aurora Energy Services and a proposal has been announced by Associated British Ports to explore additional infrastructure to support the offshore wind industry.

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“The fresh interest in our area from the international energy industry is also clear from the number of inquiries and fact-finding visits we and consortium members have had from companies around the world.”

He added that despite figures showing the “damaging decline in the working-age population of the Highlands”, there is now “a real and achievable means to address that issue, creating not just jobs, but sustainable careers that will benefit the area for years to come”.

SNP Wellbeing Economy Secretary Neil Gray, said: “We intend Scotland’s green freeports to become internationally competitive clusters of excellence which can attract people to live and work and create a fair, green and growing economy.

“Scotland’s green freeports aim to make a significant contribution to achieving our net zero ambitions and will drive the creation of large numbers of high-quality, well-paid jobs with fair work practices at their heart, including the payment of the real Living Wage.

“The green freeport at Inverness and Cromarty Firth, in particular, stands to make a real difference to the decline in the working age population seen in the Highlands in recent years.”

UK Scottish Secretary, Alister Jack, said: "The Inverness and Cromarty Freeport is a key part of the UK Government’s levelling-up strategy, which has already resulted in £2.92 billion committed to direct investment across Scotland.

“This freeport is estimated to create 25,000 jobs and generate £4.8 billion in investment for the area - a major contributor to population numbers in the Highlands - and will focus on floating offshore wind, nuclear and hydrogen that will drive a transition to net zero by 2045.

"The UK Government has been working closely with the freeport as their plans develop and I am delighted we have already started to see the benefits with new companies being welcomed to the area.

“This is only the start of the journey and as we continue together I look forward to many more relocating in the future."