Scotland politics

Fresh call to retain Highlands and Islands Enterprise board

CairnGorm mountain railway Image copyright PA
Image caption CairnGorm Mountain ski resort and its funicular railway is among the assets HIE manages

Opposition leaders have urged the Scottish government to drop plans to scrap the board of Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE).

Scottish Labour and the Lib Dems both highlighted the issue at regional conferences in Inverness.

The government wants to create a new Scotland-wide enterprise board which would oversee management of HIE.

MSPs voted to "reverse" this plan for HIE, and the government has pledged to "reflect carefully" on that.

The proposals, based on a recent education and skills review, would see a new statutory board to co-ordinate the activities of groups including Scottish Enterprise, HIE, Scottish Development International, Skills Development Scotland and the Scottish Funding Council.

Opposition members have claimed this would be the "death knell" for the organisation as it stands, and evidence of an SNP "obsession with centralisation".

'Reverse' plans

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told MSPs that "even the proposals as they are at this stage would see HIE retaining its chief executive, based in Inverness; retaining its headquarters, based in Inverness; retaining control of all staffing levels; and continuing to operate from its headquarters in Inverness."

HIE supports businesses and promotes economic growth in the Northern Isles, Western Isles, Highlands, Moray and Argyll.

Image caption Willie Rennie and Kezia Dugdale will convene regional conferences of their parties in Inverness

It began as the Highlands and Islands Development Board 50 years ago, becoming HIE in 1990. The CairnGorm Mountain ski resort and its funicular railway is among the assets it manages.

Opposition MSPs united behind a Holyrood motion saying the government should "reverse" its plans and allow the group to retain its own board.

'Pay the price'

Speaking at Labour's Highlands and Islands conference, leader Kezia Dugdale said "I give this warning to the first minister today.

"The establishment of a development agency in the Highlands, run by people who live and work here, with decisions taken here, is a day marked in Scotland's history.

"Any attempt to roll back this progress will be remembered here as the day the SNP gave up its claim to speak for all of our nation. And as the day the SNP's representatives here betrayed the people they claim to represent.

"That is why it was so important that the Scottish Parliament voted against the government to make absolutely clear that we would not stand for this."

She added: "Nicola Sturgeon is quick to use the will of parliament when it suits her own argument. On this issue, she must now set her pride aside and listen to the people's representatives in parliament who have said this decision should not stand."

'Shared commitment'

Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie, also convening a regional conference in Inverness, said the move would hit the SNP's chances in local government elections in the area.

He said: "The proposals would have diluted the ability of HIE to effectively support local businesses and communities.

"The Scottish parliament rightly voted against such a move but we are yet to see a proper response from the Scottish government.

"Despite the outcry from local constituents, SNP MSPs decided to put their party first and it will be local SNP councillors that will pay the price in the upcoming council elections in May. Local residents are becoming fed up of having an SNP cheerleader for a councillor who will stand by their party come what may."

The changes have been defended by current HIE chairman Lorne Crerar, who insisted the group would not be "in any way diminished" by them.

Following the vote, Economy Secretary Keith Brown said he was "committed to the services and support that HIE provides", adding that he would "meet with MSPs from across the chamber in order to discuss the way forward".

He said: "I believe that everyone shares a commitment to HIE and to retaining its key role in the future. We are actively engaging with all four enterprise and skills agencies, their existing boards and other experts in developing the detailed scope, potential structures and functions for the new board.

"That is why I will listen carefully to and work closely with them and MSPs from across the chamber to explore constructive ideas about how we can deliver better economic and social outcomes for the highlands and islands and for all of Scotland."

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