Orcadian 07/12/16

“There is no case, other than ministerial control-freakery, for continuing to undermine an agency whose record shows it to be one of Scotland’s success stories”.  So said Jim Hunter, the respected former Chairman of Highlands & Islands Enterprise, earlier this week. 

Professor Hunter’s dander is well and truly up as a result of plans by the SNP government to abolish HIE’s board, replacing it with a single, centralised board covering a range of different agencies and bodies. Sound familiar?

The irony is that SNP Ministers have chosen to make this move as HIE, and its predecessor body, HIDB, mark their half century. Some birthday present.

Indeed, I well recall the First Minister speaking at HIE’s 50th birthday reception in parliament. She was effusive in her praise of the agency’s achievements, drawing attention to the support provided to thousands of businesses from the widest cross section of sectors right across the region.

Ms Sturgeon also waxed lyrical about the ‘social’ dimension to HIE’s remit, unique amongst economic development agencies. This feature reflected a recognition in the mid-1960s that the existential threat of population decline in the Highlands & islands was unlikely to be addressed simply by handing out grants to key local businesses.

Funded by government, HIDB was established to be free of ministerial interference. Labour Scottish Secretary of State at the time, Willie Ross MP was adamant that to meet the challenges faced by communities in the region the agency would need “powers to act at its own hand”.

Fast forward five decades and little wonder there has been such an outcry over the SNP’s latest plans.

Ministers argue that creating a unified board for HIE, Scottish Enterprise and other partner agencies will deliver more joined up working. They also insist that HIE will continue to be based in Inverness with offices across the region.

In truth, however, strategic decisions will be taken centrally and there will be an inevitable dilution of focus on the very specific needs of businesses and communities in Orkney and across the region. A ‘retrograde step’ as Inverness-based economist, Tony Mackay observed last week.

So what lies behind this decision? Ministers claim it arises from the skills review that is currently underway, but it appears that this was not one of the group’s recommendations. In other words, plans to abolish HIE’s board are an idea conceived and promoted by SNP Ministers themselves.

It may just be, however, that this is a centralisation too far. Already, amidst the widespread criticism directed at Cabinet Secretary Keith Brown, there are growing signs of disquiet amongst local SNP councillors and activists. That is very much to be welcomed and hopefully will help persuade the government to ditch these plans.

If not, this is likely to come to a head when Mr Brown is forced to honour his explicit commitment this week to give parliament a vote on the proposals. With the SNP now deprived of its majority, that could prove tricky. The government lacks support and Highlands & Islands SNP MSPs will be under enormous pressure to put the interests of their constituents before those of their party.

That may not be comfortable for them given the ruthless, top down discipline that has been exerted over the parliamentary party during the last nine years in government. They may wish to take comfort from the fact, however, that Professor Hunter is himself a self-declared member of the SNP.

If he has come to the conclusion, as he did this week, that “in a country as diverse as ours this centralism run riot needs resisting”, then I hope at least some of his party colleagues at Holyrood heed his warning. This unwarranted power grab should be abandoned and power left where it is needed: in the highlands and islands.

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