David Stewart

Fitting HIE Into Box Will ‘Kill It’, Hears Public Petitions Committee

30 March 2017

Former MSP Maureen Macmillan told the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee today that she feared for the future of a development agency’s social remit if the Scottish Government forged ahead with plans to centralise enterprise and skills agencies.

Mrs Macmillan, who represented Labour the Highlands and Islands, presented the 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.

She called on the Scottish Government not to take away a power given to the region by a Westminster Government. 

She stressed that every single council leader in the area opposed the proposal, alongside Professor Jim Hunter, the highly regarded former chair of HIE and David Alston, the present chair of NHS Highland.

The committee also heard the petition had received cross-party support.

“HIE has never fitted into a Government department box. Nor should it be made to do so. It will kill it,” she added.

“Any alignment should be with other Highlands and Islands bodies – for example the local authorities, the health boards, UHI and third sector. For the good of the Highlands and Islands.

“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.”

Mrs Macmillan said that there was due to be a Ministerial statement on HIE this afternoon but had “no great hopes that the Government would change its mind”. 

My Highlands and Islands colleague Rhoda Grant and I supported the petition.

Mrs Macmillan explained the 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. I wonder if this kind of nurturing will survive the new regime. This social remit, I fear may be compromised,” she said.

“Do you think an overarching, hard aligned, economic committee in Edinburgh would have agreed to support the feisan movement? 

“Or agreed to build Sabhal Mòr Ostaig in Sleat? Would we indeed have had a UHI, with its 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?”

Mrs Macmillan said 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 added.

She told the committee there was still work to be done. 

“Not all areas have seen this increase in population or confidence. Indeed, some are still losing population,” she continued.

“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.”