The Scottish Government looks set to scrap Highlands & Islands Enterprise (HIE) as part of a review into Scotland’s innovation and commercial enterprise.
In its’ stead will be a centralised body that will oversee development across the country, but this will seriously damage the work being done to help some of Scotland’s most economically disadvantages regions and the Highlands & Islands will suffer the worst of the consequences.
The discussions into the role of this new body have been ongoing since last month’s first stage report of the Enterprise & Skills review but yesterday Deputy John Swinney announced to MSPs the intention to replace HIE’s governing panel with the new Scotland-wide body’s.
While SNP figures claim to be somewhat oblivious to the issue at hand, with John Swinney’s claims of HIE retaining “separate legal status” being all we’ve heard from the upper echelons of Government – and local representatives being almost entirely silent on the issue, other than merely saying they’re engaged in dialogue about the situation.
Opposition politicians have been more vocal about the decision with local MSPs Rhoda Grant and Tavish Scott both making their criticisms heard – but we did not see any question at today’s First Minister’s Questions about the issue despite its’ massive importance to the economy and the people of the area.
The Highlands & Islands’ distinct geographical, historical and cultural qualities mean that a one-size-fits-all approach to economic development cannot work. That’s why the Highlands & Islands Development Board was launched by Harold Wilson’s Government all the way back in 1965, and recently celebrated its’ 50th anniversary with wide appraisal of its’ investment of over £2 billion in that time.
The challenges that have plagued the Highlands for decades still exist today, and it’s HIE that have been at the forefront of working to combat the perennial decline that the area’s workforce have seen since the Highland Clearances.
Still far too many bright, young people leave the Highlands in pursuit of worthwhile jobs, with nothing good enough for them north of the Cairngorms to keep them here.
The Highlands’ GDP per capita still remains lower than Scotland’s as a whole despite the efforts of HIE, and there is little evidence to show that there would be any sort of benefit without their investment in the area’s key industries of agriculture, tourism and fishing.
HIE’s investments have been at the forefront of some of the most innovative and job-creating projects in the region, including recently the renovation of Scrabster harbour and the re-opening of the Nigg fabrication yard. They also play a major role in maintaining tourism income, such as their ownership of the Cairngorm mountain estate and Scotland’s largest snowsports centre which they ran for 12 years until selling it in 2014.
HIE’s work has also been crucial in securing the region’s native Gaelic language, with its’ immensely important 1982 report Cor na Gàidhlig recommending the creation of Comann na Gàidhlig which has been instrumental in campaigning for Gaelic-medium education and Gaelic broadcasting, two of the central tenets of the language’s present-day revival.
Removing the focus of HIE on its’ crucial role in tipping the scales back in favour of the Highlands & Islands is a short-sighted and misguided step from the Scottish Government, whose track record on local government and de-centralisation of power has been patchy at best.
In a world that is becoming increasingly globalised, it remains even more important that we have initiatives in place to help our local communities across Scotland to adapt and find their own ways of securing jobs, investment and development in their own regions and that’s what the Scottish Government’s priorities should be.
It is imperative that local representatives, people and business alike come together to fight these proposed changes and make their case for HIE to remain intact as the region’s flagship economic development programme – one that can make or break the revival of the region and the Gaelic language alike.
We can’t afford to say bye to HIE, so let’s make sure that it doesn’t happen.