The Scottish Government last night suffered a bruising defeat in its bid to centralise the north’s enterprise board.
The controversial proposals for Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) have been left all but dead in the water after opposition MSPs united against the SNP in a crunch vote at Holyrood.
They lost by one vote, despite the north SNP MSPs sticking to the party line.
Last night, Economy Secretary Keith Brown signalled a change of heart, promising to work with opposition MSPs and to update the chamber “in due course”.
The Press and Journal campaign against the changes was also praised by a number of MSPs during the debate.
Last night, opposition politicians celebrated knocking back the “wrong-headed” plan – and the government suggested it could now compromise over the changes.
Highlands and Islands MSP Douglas Ross, who seconded the Tory motion against the proposals, said: “Scottish Conservatives believe these plans for HIE centralisation should be shelved and now Parliament has given the same message. It’s time for the Scottish Government and SNP politicians to ditch the proposals and let HIE get back to work it does across the Highlands and Islands.”
The Scottish Conservative MSP also called out SNP members who backed the scrapping of the board, which has drawn consternation from people across the north of Scotland.
“What will not be forgotten by communities across the area is how SNP MSPs just like their councillors when this was recently put to the vote, decided to support their party bosses at the expense of local communities they are supposed to represent,” he said.
Scottish Labour MSP Rhoda Grant, who has also opposed the changes, added: “The SNP’s only aim with this proposal is to continue with its relentless march towards centralisation and control. The SNP has already centralised the police and fire and rescue service, leading to a poorer service.
“This government is obsessed with moving power and services south, and repeatedly shows its contempt for the people of the Highlands and Islands.
“I call upon all Highlanders and Islanders to say enough is enough and speak out against this wrong-headed plan.”
Last night’s vote was not binding – but it makes it politically difficult for the government to proceed with the plans.
In a statement released after the vote, Northern Isles MSPs Tavish Scott and Liam McArthur urged the government to rethink the plans.
They said: “Parliament has given SNP Ministers their marching orders tonight. Despite SNP Highlands and Islands MSPs shamefully putting their party before their constituents, the government was defeated over its plans to centralise powers over
Earlier, Mr McArthur thanked the Press and Journal for its campaign against the changes, which was in the “best traditions” of journalism.
Another Highlands and Islands MSP David Stewart also praised the “excellent” campaign.
After the vote, Economy Secretary Keith Brown suggested he would work with other parties on the proposals.
He said: “I am committed to the services and support that HIE provides and will meet with MSPs from across the chamber in order to discuss the way forward.
“I believe that everyone shares a commitment to HIE and to retaining its key role in the future. We are actively engaging with all four enterprise and skills agencies, their existing boards and other experts in developing the detailed scope, potential structures and functions for the new board.
“That is why I will listen carefully to and work closely with them and MSPs from across the chamber to explore constructive ideas about how we can deliver better economic and social outcomes for the highlands and islands and for all of Scotland.
“I will come back to the chamber to provide an update in due course.”
Fellow SNP MSP Kate Forbes, who represents Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch, added: “Let’s be clear – HIE is not under threat. It will still be Highland-centred, Highland-based and Highland-run.
“I’m amazed at the gross exaggeration, empty hyperbole and irresponsible superlatives that have dominated the discussion on HIE’s future in the last few months.”