A former MSP voiced her fears for the future of Highlands and Islands Enterprise warning that attempts to 'fit' the development agency into a 'Government department box' will 'kill it'.
Speaking today (Thursday, March 30th) at the Scottish Parliament's Public Petitions Committee, Maureen Macmillan, who represented Labour the Highlands and Islands, presented a petition urging the Government to reverse its decision to create a single Scotland-wide board and instead retain separate boards for each enterprise agency, including the Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE).
She further called on the Scottish Government not to take away a power given to the region by a Westminster Government.
And stressed that every single council leader in the area opposed the proposal, alongside Professor Jim Hunter, the highly regarded former chair of HIE, and present chair of NHS Highlands David Alston.
Mrs Macmillan said: “HIE Has never fitted into a Government department box. Nor should it be made to do so. It will kill it.
“Any alignment should be with other Highlands and Islands bodies – for example the local authority, the health boards, UHI and third sector. For the food of the Highlands and Islands,” she continued.
“It will be a great shame and an insult if a power given to us by a Westminster Government is taken away from us by a Scottish Government.”
The petition presented by Mrs Macmillan had received cross-party support, including support from Highlands and Islands Labour MSP Rhoda Grant, who said there was real concerns in the Highlands and Islands about what was happening to the area's development agency.
“We have had creeping centralizing of the board,” Ms Grant said. “HIE needs the freedom to work in the urban areas and also in the more rural areas.
“More of our island communities still suffer from depopulation and we need to ensure HIE Has the powers and the strength to deal with that.”
During her time with the Scottish Parliament's Public Petitions Committee today, Mrs Macmillan explained the HIE board and its predecessor had growing and supporting communities as integral part of its remit, alongside developing business and industry in some of the most remote and rural parts of the Highlands and Islands.
“Communities were nurtured by giving them a sense of their own worth, by supporting community projects, village halls, community shops, cultural events,” she said. “I wonder if this kind of nurturing will survive the new regime. This social remit, I fear may be compromised.
“Do you think an overarching, hard aligned, economic committee in Edinburgh would have agreed to support the feisan movement? Or agreed to build Sabhal Mor Ostaig in Sleat?,” Mrs Macmillan questioned.
“Would we indeed have had a UHI with it unique structure? Would they be impressed that HIE not long ago stepped in when three teachers at Kinlochbervie school needed childcare provision to carry on working? A great example of HIE carrying out its social remit.
“Audit Scotland did not find any weakness in HIE. Our experts are as expert as any other experts. HIE have consistently outperformed expectations. So, you have to ask, what is the problem the government are trying to resolve here?”
The former MSP said that there was due to be a Ministerial statement on HIE this afternoon, but that she had “no great hopes that the Government would change its mind.”
She added that HIE was very close to the communities it served and was part of the fabric of Highland life in a way that other development agencies were not. The autonomy of HIE was valued.
“Maybe it comes from centuries of other folks telling us what to do,” she said as she informed the Public Petition's Committee that there was 'still work to be done'.
“Not all areas have seen this increase in population or confidence,” she continued. “Indeed, some are still losing population.
“Many of the remote rural and island communities are still very fragile and need a continuing strategy which will support their economic and social fabric. Special attention needs to be paid to Argyll, the Western Isles, The Orkney Islands, Caithness and Sutherland.
“Remote rural and island cannot be hard aligned to the needs of towns and cities. Remote and rural communities are themselves diverse and every island is unique. I fear the new proposals will be too inflexible to let these communities flourish.”