FURIOUS councillors have hit out at a loan paid to fund Inverness Airport Business Park, which some now fear will never be paid back.
Highland Council gave a £1.175 million interest-free and unsecured loan to the joint venture between Moray Estates, Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) and Highlands and Islands Airports (HIAL), but have now heard it will not be repaid for another 16 years.
As the Inverness Courier reported on Tuesday the business park at Dalcross has struggled to get off the ground since the project’s creation in 2005, though it is hoped securing a Co-op distribution facility on the site may turn its fortunes around.
A meeting of the council’s environment, development and infrastructure committee on Wednesday heard that the estimated time before the council receives full repayment of its loan has now been pushed back to 2033 because a loan from HIE will be paid back first as it includes interest.
SNP group leader, Councillor Maxine Smith, called for land given by the council to be taken back.
"I’m not content with this and I don’t think the public will be either," she said. "It’s not acceptable to wait until 2033 and maybe not even get it then.
"Can we look at taking back some of the land?
"We have to do our duty to the people who voted for us and they will want to see that £1 million back."
Councillor Roddy Balfour also accused the council of essentially writing the money off.
"Myself and [former] councillor Jim Crawford have raised this for many years but nothing has been done about it, nobody cares," he said.
"This money has in essence been written off, so can someone admit that so we can be done with it?"
Since planning permission for the park was granted in 2011 two operators have established a base there – Babcock MCS Onshore (previously Bond Air Services) in 2012 and the Bristow Search and Rescue base in 2015.
The Co-op got approval for a distribution facility in September and construction is due to be finished next year.
The council’s director of development and infrastructure Stuart Black pointed out that most of the council’s money was spent on the new road to the airport, which is well used.
"I would like to give reassurance to councillors that the loan has to be repaid before shareholders can withdraw funds," he said.
"For a business park to start it needs roads, sewage works and everything else and that all requires up-front costs and that is what the new loan from HIE is for.
"We need to see businesses there before we can get our money back.
"We won’t get our money back if it remains a greenfield site for the next 20 years."
Inverness Provost Helen Carmichael also defended the investment, saying the committee had previously agreed the loan was to be a long-term one.
Business park chairman James Campbell said: "Large strategic developments like IABP are not simple or quick projects to bring to fruition.
"This was particularly the case when, during its inception, a significant commercial property downturn occurred."
Pointing to the development that has taken place so far, along with the plans by Co-op, he said he is also "encouraged" by further discussions that are now moving "to an advanced stage".
He said: "The partners in IABP remain confident and encouraged by progress in what is a long term and strategically important project and we remain on target to pay the loan stock."