‘For two hundred years, the Highlander has been the man on Scotland’s conscience.’
Willie Ross, Secretary of State for Scotland (1965)
SCOTTISH GOVERNMENT ACCUSED OF GOING BACK MORE THAN
100 YEARS OVER PLANNED HIE CHANGES
Government plans will restore pre-1886 arrangements, says former chair Authors urge change in Highlands and Islands – but not this change
The Scottish government is accused of seeking to take the Highlands and Islands back to the late 19th century – almost to Clearance times – with its proposal to strip Highlands and Islands Enterprise of its autonomous board, and to merge it with a centralised ‘superquango’.
In a new book, On Scotland’s Conscience: The Case for the Highlands and Islands, HIE is dismissed as being “largely anonymous” and acquiescent in the diminution of half a century of autonomy.
There’s now a call for a new north body, bringing together many of the agencies currently active in the area, under Highlands and Islands control. Among the bodies which should go, according to contributors to the book, is the “singularly useless” Crofting Commission.
In On Scotland’s Conscience, Kessock Books has brought together, under the Editorship of journalist and broadcaster Iain MacDonald, a panel of four distinguished Highland voices to examine the government’s plans, first announced in November 2016. They have varied views. But none of them believe the Scottish government is on the right path on this critical issue.
James Hunter, who is a former chair of Highlands and Islands Enterprise, accuses the government of seeking to take the area back in time: “This government’s apparent determination to turn HIE into little more than a means of implementing policy decisions taken outside the Highlands and Islands by people with next to no Highland and Islands involvements….will… restore pre-1886 arrangements.”
Hunter says the Scottish government is overturning longstanding and successful policies which, ever since the Clearances were ended by giving crofters security of tenure, have recognised that the Highlands and Islands have distinctive needs best met by providing the area with its own powerful and independent institutions. James Hunter is an SNP supporter.
Former U.K. government minister Brian Wilson says of the government’s plans, which would see the present enterprise agency bereft of a board and run by an “overarching” authority: “Since the SNP came to power in 2008, the budget of HIE has been cut by 22 per cent and many of its powers removed. It is difficult to imagine it doing anything that might displease its political masters in Edinburgh. Its board is largely anonymous and its chairman has actually spoken in defence of what is now being proposed.” While he was a Scottish Office minister, Labour’s Brian Wilson appointed James Hunter to the chair at HIE.
Launched in 1965 by Scottish Secretary Willie Ross, the then Highlands and Islands Development Board was tasked with reversing depopulation in the north. “For two hundred years,” said Ross, “the Highlander has been the man on Scotland’s conscience.” Today, our contributors argue that job has still not been done.
Former council leader Michael Foxley, a long term land reform campaigner, says that’s evident in the west Highlands: “It is only in winter that you notice so many homes with no lights on. In West Ardnamurchan, over half of the housing stock are holiday homes. In some townships, holiday and retirement homes make up over ninety per cent.”
Brian Wilson agrees that prosperity has not spread to the communities at the edge. “The good health of the Highlands and Islands does not correlate to the number of Tescos ringing Inverness or ….burgeoning housing estates in Moray and Nairn, but to the state of peripheral communities in the north and west.”
“What consideration will they have in future, within the affairs of an Edinburgh-run, public sector behemoth under an “overarching board”, probably without a voice to represent them?”
Maggie Cunningham, who chairs the Gaelic media company MG Alba, warns that one size does not fit all, in the Highlands and Islands, or anywhere else. “Policy for rural areas must start with need. That is why HIE has a specific social role. Solutions for rural areas will not fit templates and policies which are drawn up for urban areas or large centres of population.”
Our writers believe that there are better paths for the government to follow. Michael Foxley says, if the government is hell bent on change, a new agency should spring from the debate.
“We need to restore confidence to these areas….with lessons learnt from Norway, where they’ve been doing this sort of thing for years.”
The new agency would, he says, bring together bodies like Scottish Natural Heritage in the Highlands and Islands: transport across the area, including ferry company CalMac and the airport authority: inshore fisheries regulation and the Gaelic language. And, like Brian Wilson, he calls for the closedown of the Crofting Commission, which he says is “currently in chaos”.
Brian Wilson – who describes the Commission as “a singularly useless body which regulates decline from a remote outpost in Inverness” – says “crofting regulation, economic development and population retention in these places cannot be put into separate boxes. That lesson should finally be learned, the Crofting Commission wound up (to the shedding of very few tears) and incorporated into a new HIE structure.”
Michael Foxley voted “yes” in the Scottish Independence Referendum. “As a lifelong, home-rule Liberal, I voted for independence…on the basis that decisions concerning Scotland were best made by people in Scotland. This principle should apply equally to decisions about the Highlands and Islands, which are best made by the people who live there, and who know and care about our region.”
James Hunter still supports the SNP – but says the government must think again. “Like SNP ministers, I want Scotland to be an independent country. That is why I am an SNP voter and party member. Unlike SNP ministers, however, I am firmly of the view that Scotland…is not well served by centralism and control-freakery.”
Notes for editors:
On Scotland’s Conscience: The Case for the Highlands and Islands by Maggie Cunningham, Michael Foxley, James Hunter and Brian Wilson is published by Kessock Books, at a paperback price of £7.99. It will be launched at the Phoenix Ale House, Inverness, on Thursday, March 30 at 7p.m. The authors will be present.