A Highland Power Grab

The minister has spoken. The HIE argument is over. Except it’s not.

The government was defeated in Holyrood last December over its plans to amalgamate Highlands and Islands Enterprise with a number of other agencies, and abolish its board. Last Thursday, minister Keith Brown produced another cunning scheme. HIE now gets to keep its board – but still takes its direction from a centralised “super board”. HIE’s chair Lorne Crerar gets to sit on that super board. But then, he wrote the report making that recommendation.

The government’s new plan, says the media, is a u-turn. It isn’t. Political opponents seem to believe the battle’s over. Far from it. Here’s why not.

1. Announced at the last possible hour on the last day before the parliamentary recess, while most attention was on the Brexit/Independence debate, this proposal will presumably NOT be put to the vote at Holyrood, given the government’s earlier defeat, and the view of some that this is an even worse idea than the original. That’s a democratic deficit right there.

2. To increase the efficiency of HIE, it is now to be run by TWO boards, instead of one, at, presumably, an increased cost. This is neither more efficient, nor does it represent a saving. And it most certainly is not a u-turn. Rather, it’s sticking stubbornly to the original intention to take a tighter hold on HIE. To use language deployed by the Scottish government in another debate, this is a Highland power grab.

3. The arguments about HIE having continued powers at its own hand have not been addressed at all. Mr Brown did repeat his vague assurance that “HIE will continue to be locally-based, managed and directed”. It has, of course, been all of these things (apparently) over the last ten years, while its budget has been slashed and its staffing shrunk. Some reassurance.

4. During the debate a whole series of ideas and suggested improvements as to how the Highlands and Islands can be run and developed have been brought forward by the SNP’s foes, and some of their friends. These have been comprehensively ignored.

5. Many of these ideas are in a book On Scotland’s Conscience, which has looked at the government’s plans and the current state of the Highlands and Islands. I edited that book, and invited Professor James Hunter: Maggie Cunningham: Dr Michael Foxley: Peter Peacock and Brian Wilson to contribute. Mr Brown and his fellow ministers should, even now, take a look.

6. I would challenge ministers to put their new plan for HIE before Parliament again. I’d call on the Highlands and Islands’ seven SNP constituency MSPs to say in public why this plan will be better for the Highlands and Islands, and for their constituents. I’d urge those who campaigned against the original idea not to give up now. This is a bad solution. If you don’t speak up, who will?

Iain MacDonald
Editor, ‘On Scotland’s Conscience’

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