Board changes 'will not diminish' Highlands and Islands Enterprise
The chairman of Highlands and Islands Enterprise has insisted the body will continue to exist in its present form despite changes to how it is overseen.
Deputy First Minister John Swinney told MSPs that a new Scotland-wide group was to oversee and eventually "replace" individual agency boards.
Opposition MSPs said this could be the "death knell for HIE as we know it".
But chairman Prof Lorne Crerar said HIE would not be "in any way diminished" by the coming changes.
Mr Swinney was asked about the plans for a new national enterprise and skills board during portfolio questions at Holyrood on Wednesday.
He said: "Phase 1 of the enterprise and skills review recommended the creation of a new single strategic Scotland-wide statutory board to co-ordinate the activities of Scottish Enterprise, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Skills Development Scotland and the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council.
"Our intention is that, once established, the overarching board will replace individual agency boards while retaining the separate legal status of each of the bodies."
Tory MSP Donald Cameron put forward an amendment to a later debate, noting "significant concerns" about the new board, which "may lead to a centralisation of services at the expense of the local skills, knowledge and expertise of HIE".
He said the change was "not mere administrative tinkering; it is the death knell for HIE as we know it," adding that it was "nothing short of shameful".
Labour's Rhoda Grant said it was "sad" that the government had taken the "wrong-headed" decision to "downgrade" the group, adding: "If the board has no understanding of the needs of our remote island communities, how on earth can it support them to grow their economies?"
And Lib Dem member Tavish Scott said the new "superboard" would not have "the same single-minded focus on the Highlands and Islands" as HIE, claiming that many SNP members were also concerned about the changes.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has previously said that HIE "does a fantastic job" and assured members that it would continue to be in a position to "provide the excellent service it does to the Highlands".
And Prof Crerar said the Scottish government had given him "absolute reassurance" that HIE would continue in its present form.
He said: "The report on Phase 1 of the Enterprise and Skills Review made very clear that HIE will continue to manage and direct dedicated support for economic and community development across the region.
"There will be changes at board level, with the formation of a new overarching strategic board to oversee the activities of all the enterprise and skills bodies, which of course includes HIE.
"We are in close contact with Scottish government to ensure that going forward HIE is not in any way diminished and hopefully enhanced, and that the important features of our governance are replicated and not diluted in any new arrangements for the future."