Scottish Enterprise has long been in favour of “clusters”. The idea is simple enough: bring together enough firms from the same sector or related industries and they’ll soon start to encourage and support each other. The whole, so the thinking goes, will be greater than the sum of the assorted parts.
The latest of these clusters is alternative energy. But if Freddy Shepherd has his way, it will be led by the private sector rather than the public, at least in Fife.
He paid an undisclosed sum to buy Scotland’s biggest white elephant, the empty microchip plant at Halbeath near Dunfermline. His company, Shepherd Offshore, has a clearly defined masterplan to create a manufacturing hub on the site for products such as wind turbine blades. But to do that, the existing main factory has to be demolished, as we reported earlier this week.
Mr Shepherd explained that the firm had looked at modifying the factory – but, thanks to its having “buildings within buildings”, decided this wasn’t feasible. Only the adjacent three-storey office block will remain. This will be brought up to a modern standard and has already attracted considerable interest, not least from local technical colleges.
The “masterplan” is the latest proposal to go before Fife council, probably in the early autumn, and sets out ideas on how to redevelop the site. According to Mr Shepherd, the decision to bid for the plant was taken very quickly. “We came up here on a Monday,” he said, “bid for it on the Tuesday and the whole deal was done in just over ten days.”
Demolition of the existing building started this week and should be finished by the end of the year. Mr Shepherd is intent on replacing it with something with more potential – a centre for research and development for alternative energy, especially wind power. One of the attractions was that both Adam Smith College and Carnegie College already have courses in key subjects.
“We have a renewables academy in Newcastle,” Mr Shepherd said, “which should put up to 2,000 students through. We want to do the same here in Fife. We’ll do it with our own money, from our family Trust. We need to develop the skills to make this hub a success. We see no reason why the area shouldn’t be able to have up to 10,000 jobs in this sector.”
When it comes to developing new facilities on the site, Mr Shepherd expects to get support from Fife council and Scottish Enterprise. A lot of that will depend on the shape of that masterplan, which is already under development. “We are the tenth market plan, which tells you something,” Mr Shepherd said. “We’re very hopeful that the interest shown to date will be converted to real project activity, resulting in jobs and investment and overall benefit for the local community.”
But he was equally clear about the importance of the location. “We’re just off the M90 and are three miles from the Firth of Forth,” he said, adding that “we don’t want metal-bashing here, we want clean energy.” By that he means developing the supply chain for renewables and perhaps becoming a centre for the construction of the new Forth crossing.
There has also already been interest from companies looking to move into the refurbished offices. That side of the work is being carried out by Colliers International, the real estate consultancy that handled the sale of the site. Colliers director Bryce Stewart said that “a mixed-use strategy will allow Shepherd Offshore to create an excellent facility for Scotland’s emerging renewables industry.”
When it was suggested to Mr Stewart that Scotland already had a surplus of underused business parks (one near Eurocentral in Lanarkshire remains almost empty), he insisted this was a very different proposition: “This will be a specialised facility, attracting certain types of business that want to be associated with the renewables industry.
“For that reason, we’re very confident about being able to let this space. As I said, we’ll have a mixed-use startegy, with educational establishments working alongside research and development companies and small to medium-sized manufacturing. Yes, it’s very like a Scottish Enterprise ‘cluster’ but one that can work.”