The Highlands and Islands may be celebrated for their beauty, their lush landscapes and scenic hills, but for many workers life is a struggle.

Many of the problems faced across Scotland - lack of services, poor infrastructure, rising housing costs and increasingly precarious employment options – are held in common. However, for workers and communities in the Highlands and Islands, these are exacerbated by the very geography that tourists wonder at.

Like most of Scotland, the Highlands and Islands has low headline unemployment, however, also like the rest of Scotland this disguises a problem of precarious and low-paid work which does not allow households to prosper. The demographic problem of an ageing population and insufficient young workers is at its most marked in this region.

Earlier this week NHS Highland announced a moratorium on all major projects planned for the future. This includes stopping work on a new Highland hospital which has been a promise for more than a generation to the community for over 30 years. The project was to replace the Belford Hospital in Fort William and was slated for opening by 2028.

A planned extension to maternity provision at Raigmore Hospital in Inverness is another casualty of a lack of public finance as are the new Caithness health redesign hubs which were to be built in Thurso and Wick.

On top of this, workers in the Highlands are facing an acute housing crisis. In November 2023, it was reported that £3.3million was owed in rent arrears due to cost of living. This is a staggering increase of 28 per cent in the last two years. An astonishing 9,000 people are on waiting lists for social housing, with greatest demand seen in Inverness and Ross-shire. Private renting is becoming increasingly unaffordable, and the Scottish Human Rights Commission (SHRC) is even carrying out an investigation into the effects of rising energy and housing costs.

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Yet at the same time, according to figures from the Scottish Government, there has been a nearly 670 per cent increase in long-term empty properties in the Highlands. In 2013, there were 434 long-term empty homes, today it’s 3,334. In addition to this, the Highlands also has the largest number of second homes in Scotland, with 3,753 registered in 2023.

Recent welcome and glossy announcements such as the new Sumitomo Electric cable factory at Nigg and the granting of controversial Green Port status to the Cromarty Firth are given as evidence that the whole of the Highlands and Islands has a bright future. This is something we all desperately want to believe. However, experience, of both the present and the past, suggest a more sober assessment is required. Thus far, the Green Jobs revolution has been a damp squib with failure after failure to generate the promised jobs.

Clearly many of the challenges are shared across the Highlands region. However, we should also be wary of broad generalisations and one-size-fits-all solutions when considering a region with an area of 25,000 square kilometres, a third of the landmass of Scotland.

Last March, along with senior trade unionists I spent a few days in Thurso and the wider Caithness area to see for myself. The overwhelming impression was of a community deeply concerned about the future, but willing to work together with Government to address it.

The Herald: Minister for Just Transition Richard LochheadMinister for Just Transition Richard Lochhead (Image: PA)

Caithness is at the apex of the energy transition, with nuclear decommissioning under way at Dounreay, changes in the oil and gas supply chains, vast swathes of wind turbines onshore off the coast, and vital grid infrastructure to carry the additional electricity to the rest of the UK.

The urgent need to transition to a low-carbon economy is adding impetus to the existing need to plan for a future after nuclear decommissioning and as the North Sea basin moves well past peak production. Yet despite the vital role the region is to play in this transition, there is little confidence or certainty in the future ahead.

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Highland Council has warned parts of the region are being "drained"’ of people. In the last few months, BT Group has threatened the loss of 100 jobs in Easter Ross, Thurso-based battery manufacturers AMTE Power have entered administration, all while the benefits from rapidly expanding renewable energy and grid infrastructure bypasses local people (and the southerners of Scotland) straight into the pockets of multinational companies.

The issues facing the Highlands and Islands are vast, but people in the region are fighting for their vision of the future of their community. Trade union members through Wick and Thurso Trades Council have come together with like-minded groups in Caithness into an organisation called Focus North. Their vision is to turn rhetoric from politicians on "just transition" into something meaningful: plans led by local people, with the support and investment needed to turn them into reality.

Dounreay has been a site of work for thousands in Caithness, including 2,000 today. While the sites decommissioning may be well under way, the lessons to be learned from its development are extensive. In the 1950s, the first workers arrived, often with their whole families, dubbed the "The Atomics", attracted by the high-quality work on offer at the unique golf-ball-shaped reactor site. Alongside this came modern house-building programmes with affordable rents, new schools, and the UK Government’s Atomic Energy Authority even running a Sports and Social club.

The region has multiple large-scale projects being developed in the energy and space sectors, and commitment from Dounreay decommissioners to help diversify the local economy. If carefully co-ordinated, these opportunities could transform the highlands by embedding new industries locally and building thriving public services.

The challenge is capitalising on this moment and investment from local authorities is vital. The Visitor Levy (Scotland) Bill will bring the option of a tourist tax if it passes, while wealth taxes and levies on empty and second homes would also bring in vital funds. The experience of Dounreay’s development points the way forward today - timely support and investment led by national and local governments are vital to building and holding onto new opportunities.

When presented with the proposal from Focus North, then Minister for Just Transition Richard Lochhead responded with interest, yet the group has never had a follow-up response. We know people in the region won’t watch as this opportunity passes by, and we’ll be supporting local trade unionists demands. The time for talk is long past, it’s now time to put the power of the region into people’s hands.

Roz Foyer is General Secretary of the STC