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Former HIE chairman urges MSPs to reject new plan for agency

Professor Jim Hunter
Professor Jim Hunter

A respected former chairman of the north’s development agency has urged MSPs to resist new plans to “take away” its independence.

Professor Jim Hunter said that a blueprint unveiled last week by the current head of Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) “in no way set to rest” his concerns about the looming shake-up.

The eminent historian, who served as HIE chairman between 1998 and 2004, spoke out following the publication of a review by one of his successors in the post, current incumbent Professor Lorne Crerar.

The plan differed from the original by recommending the retention of HIE’s dedicated board, but also said that it would become a “delivery board”, reporting to a controversial new national panel, which would oversee all Scotland’s development and skills agencies.

The proposals have been backed by SNP politicians in the Highlands, while the retention of HIE’s own board has also received a cautious welcome from Highland Council leader Margaret Davidson, Scottish Green MSP John Finnie and SCDI.

However, local Liberal Democrat and Conservative MSPs rejected the idea, claiming it would add an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy and hand “absolute control” of HIE to Scottish ministers.

Economy Secretary Keith Brown has said he will announce his decision on the future of the agency within weeks.

Mr Hunter, emeritus professor of history at the University of the Highlands and Islands and an SNP member, revealed last night that the revised plan did little to allay his fears.

He told the Press and Journal: “Keith Brown kindly gave me an opportunity some weeks ago to put to him directly my anxieties about the Scottish Government’s plans for HIE. I’m most grateful to him for that.

“However, my concerns are in no way set to rest by the proposals now on the table.

“Fundamental to the success of first the Highlands and Islands Development Board (HIDB) and now HIE has been the longstanding principle that these agencies should have wholly independent chairs and boards with the powers to frame their own developmental strategies – strategies informed by regionally rooted understanding and analysis of the particular economic and social requirements of what remains a highly distinctive part of Scotland.

“The proposals now under consideration by Mr Brown and his colleagues take away all of this – thereby depriving the Highlands and Islands of a developmental approach which has served the region well and, in the process, delivered very many benefits to businesses and communities across the northern half of Scotland.”

Mr Hunter added: “Do I believe that HIE cannot be improved, reformed and refocused? No.

“But nor do I accept that a further instalment of centralism run riot – a centralism which will subject HIE’s residual and no longer autonomous board to constant outside oversight and direction – will be good for either the Highlands and Islands or Scotland.

“I very much hope, therefore, that a majority of MSPs will again insist, as they did in January, on HIE retaining its independence.”

Opposition MSPs joined forces last month to demand the Scottish Government abandon plans to scrap the HIE board, but ministers said they would wait for Professor Crerar’s report before making a decision.

The concept of retaining delivery boards was first floated last month by Ian Blackford, SNP MP for Ross, Skye and Lochaber.

Last night, he said: “I support the thrust of the report, although the fine detail obviously is something that needs to be worked upon.

“I actually think what Lorne has done is come up with a governance model that allows HIE to up its game.

“It’s not about taking away its independence, it’s about realising there’s a clear accountability model.

“The last thing that I would want to see, and hopefully what my colleagues would want to see, would be a loss of local accountability.”