£315m Inverness City Region Deal announced
The Scottish and UK governments have confirmed details of a £315m City Region Deal for Inverness and the wider Highlands area.
Highland Council had sought support for a raft of projects costing more than £400m.
The proposals include improvements to transport links, digital connectivity and creating new skills academies, mostly in Inverness.
The deal involves direct funding and greater borrowing powers.
The Scottish government has committed £135m of investment, the UK government £53m and Highland Council and its regional partners will contribute £127m.
The local authority has said the package, which will see money invested over 10 to 20 years, could attract £1bn in private sector investment over several years.
Projects proposed aim to boost the Highlands economy, create new jobs, attract professionals working in science, technology and engineering to the region and encourage young people not to move away from the Highlands for further education and work.
In a ceremony in Inverness, the deal was signed by Highland Council leader Margaret Davidson, Infrastructure Secretary Keith Brown and also Lord Dunlop, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Scotland Office.
Highland Council, Drew Hendry, who is SNP MP for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, and Highlands and Islands Enterprise have welcomed the announcement.
However, Highlands-based economist Tony Mackay and Rob Gibson, SNP MSP for SNP MSP for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross, have criticised the spending plans.
'Best in Europe'
Earlier, Ms Davidson told BBC Radio's Good Morning Scotland programme that the package would bring years of "certainty and investment".
She said it would pay for major roads projects in Inverness. The new West Link has been designed to ease city centre congestion and travel to the A82, while the planned East Link would connect the A96 to the A9.
A flyover to take traffic up and over the Longman Roundabout at the Kessock Bridge could also be allocated money, said Ms Davidson.
She added that funding would also be directed towards improving the region's internet connections.
The Plan in the High Castle: Where the money is to be invested
- Inverness Castle - Among the most eye-catching of the investment plans is the transformation of the hilltop 18th Century property into a major tourist attraction. The site is currently used for sittings of sheriff and justice of the peace courts but these are to move to a new purpose-built complex off Longman Road.
- Roads - The new West Link, proposed East Link and a flyover at the Longman Roundabout look set to be funded.
- Science and technology - Funding is to be made available for developing medical products and technologies and clinical research by the University of the Highlands and Islands. A North Innovation Hub has also been proposed.
- Connectivity - Improvements have been promised in mobile phone and broadband connections across the Highlands.
- Housing - It has also been proposed that money be invested in building 6,000 new homes, of which 1,800 will be affordable, over the next 20 years.
Ms Davidson said: "What everyone, every community, is telling me is digital connectivity is what we are needing.
"That would penetrate every corner of the Highlands and we want the Highlands to be the best connected region in Europe."
The council leader confirmed that £15m had been sought for a project to transform Inverness Castle, currently a sheriff court, into a tourist attraction.
MP Mr Hendry said: "This deal offers us an opportunity to not only boost the economy and bring jobs, it allows us to plan growth, develop our vision and deliver for the people who live and work here.
"It is no secret that almost everyone in Inverness wants to see the castle open to the public. This will bring thousands of extra tourists and will significantly boost our tourism economy. It is a win for local people and visitors."
He added: "These infrastructure improvements, combined with the dualling of the A9, A96, improvements to the rail services and the SG commitment to 100% broadband coverage mean we will be better planned for, better connected and better able to take advantage of opportunities in the future."
'Life and death'
Economist Mr Mackay said there was merit in some of the projects proposed, but described other ideas as "poor".
He told BBC Radio Scotland that turning Inverness Castle into a tourist attraction and improving roads would bring much-needed economic benefits.
But he added that money should also be invested in putting new businesses into empty shops in the city centre. Mr Mackay described building a velodrome, which had formed part of Highland Council's original investment plans, as a "waste of money".
Highland Council has since said a regional sports hub in Inverness did not form part of the City Region Deal.
The local authority said it would consider how to progress the plan and had an "indication of significant investment" from national body sportscotland.
The council had suggested the hub could have a velodrome and space for sports including gymnastics.
MSP Mr Gibson said some of the investment should have been committed to resolving a problematic section of the A890 in Wester Ross.
He said: "How can it be a city and region deal if the need for a bypass at Strome Ferry on the rock-fall prone section of the A890 is not a priority?
"Following a series of land slips and rock falls over decades the frequent closure of this A road which is a Highland Council responsibility could pose life and death issues for travellers.
"The school students going to Plockton High School from Lochcarron are exposed to danger every day. Keeping the dangerous section open has cost millions over decades."
City of Angles
By Steven McKenzie, BBC Highlands and Islands reporter
Ask anyone in Inverness and they will have a different angle on how hundreds of millions of pounds should be spent on the city.
There is support for the greater availability of sporting facilities because of the huge demand for what is already on offer at sites such as Inverness Leisure and Culloden Community Centre.
And while a traffic jam in Inverness is usually nothing like what can be experienced in Glasgow, Edinburgh or Aberdeen, it is the cause of frustration, especially at the Longman Roundabout, the octopus tentacle-esq Inshes Roundabout and Raigmore Interchange.
But the West Link, one of Highland Council's solutions to the traffic problems, has been controversial with a campaign opposed to the loss of green spaces to the new road.
Better digital connectivity would likely receive wide spread support with the most vocal support coming from places beyond Inverness. Highland Council's leader Margaret Davidson has said the whole of the Highlands would benefit from investment in improved broadband connections.
Wherever the millions of pounds is eventually committed it will be the cause of agreement and disagreement.
Similar deals have previously been secured by Glasgow and jointly by Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire councils.
The Scottish and UK governments provide funding and other support for the packages.
Highland Council said millions of pounds it has committed to building Inverness's new West Link road would form part of the deal.
The local authority said the package would benefit the wider Highland area.
During last week's Budget, Chancellor George Osborne said that negotiations would also begin on the Edinburgh and South-East Scotland City Region Deal bid
It aims to secure major funding to help better protect historic attractions in Scotland's capital, and also boost the wider area's overseas trade and opportunities for new businesses.
Those involved have calculated that an additional £3.2bn worth of private sector investment could be leveraged if the bid was successful.