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More tangible action on the ground and less public relations ‘spin’ are needed if Lochaber’s residents are to have any confidence in new plans announced this week by smelter owners, GFG Alliance, which is jettisoning its alloy wheels plant project at Fort William in favour of a smaller recycling and casting facility.
That was the reaction from senior Lochaber councillor Andrew Baxter on news that GFG Alliance now wants to double aluminium production at its Alvance Aluminium smelter as part of an alternative £94m business blueprint.
Alvance, a member of metals tycoon Sanjeev Gupta’s GFG Alliance, wants to invest in a new recycling and casting facility that will take aluminium production to 80,000 tonnes year, by utilising domestic scrap aluminium that is currently exported.
The new facility, which would see 70 new jobs created, will produce long round shapes, known as ‘billets’, for the domestic construction sector which currently heavily relies on imports.
The news comes almost four years to the day that GFG announced it had bought the smelter and accompanying hydro-electric schemes, together with 114,000 acres, in a £330m deal from Rio Tinto Aluminium.
Three years later it emerged the controversial Scottish Government guarantee on the power purchases by the aluminium smelter from the hydro-electric plants, which had backed GFG’s investment, was worth close to half a billion pounds.
But a significant decline in the UK automotive industry is now blamed for the demise of the alloy wheels project, intended to create 400 new jobs.
The new proposals will be submitted to the Highland Council for approval with the hope the new facility will be fully operational by 2024.
GFG Alliance is also tabling plans for a new canning facility, located next to the Fort William plant, to package Scottish Highlands water into reusable aluminium cans.
Councillor Baxter, who chairs the local authority’s Lochaber Area Committee, agrees any investment for the smelter and wider Fort William economy is welcome and the creation of 70 new jobs, at a time of considerable economic uncertainty, is good news.
But he added that what was now important is that local people see this new proposal actually delivered.
‘Scottish taxpayers need to see a return on their government-backed investment. Are we now being asked to pump more government cash into another new venture? This is very different from the grand announcements made when the company purchased the smelter and all the associated assets,’ Mr Baxter told us.
However, Brian King, chairman of Alvance British Aluminium, said the new plans will provide a long-term future for the Fort William operations.
‘Since putting forward our original plans for a wheels factory, the automotive industry has gone through significant decline in the UK. Fortunately, the construction industry is buoyant and is using ever more aluminium billet, giving us the chance to produce a quality product making use of primary metal from the smelter and recycled scrap,’ explained Mr King.
And Highlands and Islands Conservative MSP Donald Cameron said that, after several years of uncertainty and speculation, he was glad there was now a ‘concrete and detailed plan’ for the smelter, calling it a a ‘very welcome early Christmas present’ for Fort William, and Lochaber, at a time when good news was badly needed.
But Councillor Baxter said it will take more than just words to satisfy people this time round: ‘So far, all that has been promised before has been like a desert mirage. It is tantalisingly attractive, but as you look closer it vanishes before your eyes,’ he said.
‘Councillors were urged to rush through the planning process as any delay would threaten 400 jobs that would transform the town. Those jobs evaporated.
‘Campaigners were told to be patient as there would be an element of community land ownership. Such prospects have all but disappeared.
‘For Lochaber residents to have confidence that this time things will be different, we must see on the ground action, not carefully crafted public relation announcements.’