Brexit has made the role of north development quango Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) “more relevant than ever,” its newly appointed chief executive has said.
Charlotte Wright, whose appointment was announced yesterday, said the agency had a “critical” part to play in maintaining the region’s prosperity amid economic uncertainty caused by the UK’s decision to quit the EU.
Ms Wright, who joined HIE 20 years ago and held the chief executive’s post in an acting capacity since last August, emerged successful from from a field of more than 50 applicants for the £108,181-£118,480-a-year job.
In the autumn the agency became embroiled in a furious political row after Deputy First Minister John Swinney suggested its local board would be scrapped and replaced by an “over-arching” Scotland-wide committee.
The proposal, branded “blatant centralisation,” by its critics, followed a review of Scotland’s enterprise and skills services announced by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. But a rethink saw the 12-strong HIE board reprieved in March, with Economy Secretary Keith Brown announcing it would retain its powers, despite plans to press ahead with the new national oversight panel.
Ms Wright said HIE was focused on ensuring the region’s businesses and communities remained “resilient” through and beyond Brexit.
She said: “The best thing we can do is make sure that we are supporting businesses, not just with money, but with advice and strategic thinking. We are looking at wider markets, but the rest of the UK is a major market and always has been.
“Our role has to be to try and support businesses and communities through a period that will be characterised by uncertainty.”
She added: “The role of HIE and other enterprise agencies, along with Skills Development Scotland is more relevant than ever. It is really critical at this time.”
Ms Wright said morale in the agency had not been hit by the recent political row, because staff had always been confident that HIE had done a good job.
“With a track record of 50-plus years, I suppose we feel we have stood the test of time,” she said.
“But we also need to be about the future and not just about the past. My message in that year was that the important thing was to be seen to be delivering on the ground for businesses and communities.
“I have to say it was great to see that there was such an outpouring of support for a public agency. We do appreciate the feedback we have had from people.”
Fergus Ewing, Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy and Connectivity, said: “Charlotte has proven herself as an exceptional leader who is absolutely committed to making a difference in every part of the region, and I am certain she will be a highly effective and inspiring chief executive for years to come,” said Mr Ewing.”
HIE chairman Professor Lorne Crerar described Ms Wright as “the ideal person to lead HIE into a new chapter.”