Former Industry Minister Brian Wilson writes:
We live in strange political times and that truth is not restricted to national or global events. In our own region, who would have thought that every Member of the Scottish Parliament (bar one) representing a Highlands and Islands constituency would ever have voted in favour of abolishing the board of HIE?
For more than half a century, politicians of all parties have supported the existence of a distinct economic development agency to tackle the challenges faced by Highlands and Islands communities. Progress made in that period has been attributable in no small measure to the strength and independence of HIE and, before it, the Highlands and Islands Development Board.
Now the Scottish Government is planning to subsume the HIE board into an “overarching” Scotland-wide organisation, the remit of which will also include not only Scottish Enterprise but also Skills Development Scotland, the Scottish Higher and Further Education Funding Councils and Scottish Development International. It is likely that this centralised super-quango will be chaired by a Minister.
This is an incredible departure from previous recognition of regional and peripheral needs. But surely it is even more incredible that it has been voted for at Holyrood by representatives of the very places which have gained most in the past from the separate identity of HIE/HIDB and now stand to lose most from its subordination to a Scotland-wide agenda.
It is as inconceivable that this proposal would have been supported by former Western Isles MP Donald Stewart as by any other substantial political figure in the Highlands and Islands over the past half century. If any government had been misguided enough to produce such a plan, it would have been cut off at the pass by its own standard-bearers in the region. But not now. They vote for it!
Their case for the defence is that nothing will change. How can this be so? To assert that is to pretend that the HIE/HIDB Boards of previous decades made no difference to the direction of policy and priorities. But anyone who knows anything about key decisions which have greatly benefitted the Western Isles over the years. can recognise this as utterly untrue. Lobbying Edinburgh has been very different from working with Inverness.
Dismissing the need for a “Highland Board” is grossly disrespectful to the memory of people who really did make a difference. Without exception, until very recently, the chairmen of HIDB/HIE became major public figures who were prepared to challenge government when the need arose in order to promote the Highlands and Islands interest, usually with cross-party political support.
Grieve, Gilchrist, Alexander, Cowan, Morrison, Hunter…do the SNP MSPs really believe that none of them made a difference for the Western Isles or other regions distant from Inverness; that things would have been exactly the same without them; or that a Scotland-wide quango would have delivered the same outcomes?
Check out Breasclete and Ardveenish, I ask the MSPS, and tell me that a “board” made not difference. Check out Arnish. Check out community land ownership. Check out the Harris Tweed industry. Check out community co-operatives. Check out 1,000 other things that would not have happened without the existence of an HIDB/HIE board that was both accessible and interested.
Our region’s representatives should learn some history then summon up the courage to say what all their predecessors would have said: “This is something I cannot support”.
How HIE came to exist…looking back
The need for a separate economic development agency for the Highlands and Islands was recognised at least from the 1930s, when the Hilleary Report’s recommendation for its establishment was frustrated by the outbreak of war.
Throughout the 1950s, the case was pursued by the Highland Panel which had only an advisory role.
Finally, with the election of the Labour government in 1964, the dream became reality in fulfillment of a manifesto commitment. The Highlands and Islands Development Act created the HIDB with extensive powers and budget to transform the economic prospects of the region, and to stem depopulation.
Critically, the HIDB was given a social remit as well as an economic one and the freedom to take risks with investment, particularly in parts of the region – such as the Western Isles – where there were relatively few prospects for creating employment and countering migration.
The HIDB did not always get it right but few would deny that its successes by far outweighed its failures or that its role was transformational in many respects. The economic problems of the Western Isles were not resolved but were certainly ameliorated.
In the 1980s, the Tory government replaced the HIDB with Highlands and Islands Enterprise, with more of a business focus. However, the founding principles remained undisturbed and the introduction of Local Enterprise Companies devolved some of the budget and decision-making powers to local levels.
At the same time, the HIE remit was extended east of Inverness to growth areas that had not been part of the Crofting Counties. Over a period, this tilted the balance of influence and expenditure towards the Inverness conurbation.
There had always been a conflict between the promotion of mainland growth centres and the needs of the periphery, because job creation in places like Inverness and Fort William tended to suck people away from the crofting communities.
The rapid growth of the Inverness area, backed by huge public investment, has encouraged some – myself included – to call for HIE’s efforts to be re-focused on those places which continue to present the greatest economic challenges, including the Western Isles. What nobody called for was for HIE to be turned into a branch office of a Scotland-wide super-quango,
Since the present Scottish Government came to office, the LECS have been abolished and the budget of HIE cut by 22 per cent with powers and flexibility greatly curtailed. The board’s abolition (or replacement by an advisory one without powers, taking us back to the 1950s) is widely seen as the final killing-off of a noble concept which has delivered much but with plenty still to be done.