THE boss of a Ross-shire group behind controversial £1million expansion plans getting under way next week is being challenged to make a fresh start with the local community.
The Cromarty Firth Port Authority (CFPA) announced this week that Pat Munro (Alness) Ltd has been awarded the contract to undertake the next phase of works to expand its land as Invergordon.
The CFPA had previously been slammed by councillors, an MSP, an MP and community representatives for the way it handled preparatory work on the strip of land known locally as Linear Park.
A row over what many described as "a land grab" rumbled on for several weeks after bulldozers appeared without warning to level an area which had been used for recreational use.
Work on phase two of the development, to bring 2.6 acres of land up to the same operational standard as the existing service base, is due to start on Monday and be completed by November.
Ross MP John Thurso — who at one point asked board members to consider their positions over the way the affair was handled — said this week he was happy to see a local contractor win the work and had held "conciliatory" meetings with CFPA chief executive Ken Gray aimed at better communication going forward.
The MP is also confident that the Crown Estate, which would be involved in the negotiation of any new land leases, is fully aware of public disquiet over the perceived loss of recreational land and is keen to make amends.
The MP told the Journal: "They accepted that their communication had not achieved its aim and that they needed to find better ways to communicate with the local community.
"They tell me they take the views of the community very seriously. I’ve received updates about what is being planned since then and time will tell if that develops into trust."
Lord Thurso said the Crown Estate is "now fully seized of the importance of the community side of things" and had acknowledged it was effectively hamstrung by former land leases. He said too he believed Highland Council could have stepped in more robustly to resolve matters.
He said he’d watch closely how the issue of amenity land and screening of development was handled.
Ross MSP Rob Gibson also welcomed news of the contract to a well-known local operator but said the CFPA still had some way to go to show it was acting in the interests of the community.
"It’s good to see a local firm getting work but it’s fair to say the local community has not been impressed to date with how its interests have been regarded," he said.
He was also unhappy about "exagerrated" job predictions and said he hoped the CFPA would now address issues raised with it.
Chief Executive and harbour master Ken Gray said the Port would be spending around £1m on phase 2 with "a large proportion" of that going to the Alness firm. That would have direct and indirect economic benefits.
Once operational, the additional port land will support oil and gas, as well as renewables-related activity and support in the region of 50 jobs, he said.
Mark Bramley, construction director for Pat Munro (Alness) Ltd said it was "encouraging" to see the investment. He said: "Having undertaken a number of projects with the Authority over recent years, including Phase 1 of this development, we are pleased to be able to continue that working relationship and welcome the positive impact for ourselves and our locally based supply chain."
The CFPA says that the success of the Invergordon Service Base, which it claims currently provides in excess of 700 full-time equivalent jobs, has resulted in demand for the facilities growing.
That will continue with the offshore wind farm developments taking place in the Moray Firth, it says.
A spokesperson said: "It is crucial that facilities are developed to meet these requirements, as well as existing oil and gas custom, securing business and enhancing employment opportunities for the region."