The boss of the north’s business agency has unveiled a blueprint to try to end a bitter row over its future – but the plan was branded “worse” than the original.
A fresh row erupted last night over the independence of Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) after its chairman Lorne Crerar tabled a compromise package.
He recommended that HIE and other bodies should be able to keep their own “delivery boards”, but also backed a controversial move to create a national panel to oversee its work – and said it could be led by a government minister.
Local SNP and Green MSPs gave their support to the move last night – but the Liberal Democrats claimed it would hand Scottish ministers “absolute control” of HIE and was “even worse” than previous proposals.
Scottish ministers provoked fury at the end of last year by confirming it would axe HIE’s dedicated board and replace it with a new panel overseeing all of Scotland’s enterprise and skills agencies.
Critics claimed it would undermine 50 years of progress in the north, and the Press and Journal’s Keep HIE Local campaign was backed by all opposition parties, Highland Council, trade unions and SCDI, as well as former chairmen and chief executives of the agency.
Opposition MSPs joined forces last month to demand the Scottish Government abandon the plans, but ministers said they would wait for Professor Crerar’s report before making a decision.
Economy Secretary Keith Brown said last night that the government would now outline its next steps to parliament in the next few weeks.
Tavish Scott and Liam McArthur, the Liberal Democrat MSPs for Shetland and Orkney respectively, dismissed the recommendations in a joint statement.
“This report confirms everything a centralising government wants. This means absolute control by ministers of Highlands and Islands Enterprise,” they said.
“Lorne Crerar should have simply done what he was asked and produced a justification for the HIE board abolition. His proposal is even worse.
“This is control from the centre. A delivery board that will do exactly what it is told by ministers.”
Edward Mountain, Scottish Conservative MSP for the Highlands and islands, said: “To me it is just another layer of bureaucracy, and the minister can feed into it at two levels.
“On the basis of that, we do not believe it is helpful and we do not support it as a party.”
In his report, Prof Crerar wrote that the proposals for a national strategic board had been “universally supported”, as had “aspirations for a more coherent, simpler, flexible and cost-effective system of national and local support”.
He said the national panel could be chaired by either a government minister or an independent chair, and that it “must have a clear and direct authority” to ensure that individual chairmen and women “hold their agency and their chief executive to account in meeting the aims” of the strategic board.
The “primary function” of those chairing each agency would be to deliver the strategic board’s aims, while their “secondary, but nonetheless critical role” would be to fulfil current obligations as chairmen and women of the respective agencies.
Prof Crerar’s report states: “My proposals would ensure continuing good governance of HIE by a locally accountable board with key features of governance, most notably a focus upon stakeholder engagement.”
His blueprint has similarities to a compromise proposal tabled last month by Ian Blackford, the SNP MP for Ross, Skye and Lochaber.
SNP MSP Kate Forbes, who represents Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch, backed the recommendations last night.
“According to the review, this independent board would act as an intermediary between the competing interests of the region, it should engage intensively with stakeholders to deliver on the key priorities of the region and should make independent decisions,” she said.
“I fully agree that the strategic board should not interfere with the day-to-day running of the organisation and that HIE should be well represented on the strategic board.”
Highlands and islands Labour MSP Rhoda Grant said: “Serious questions remain about the SNP’s shambolic bid to centralise the board, which has led to a great deal of uncertainty and worry in communities across the Highlands and Islands.
“While Professor Crerar’s recommendations are heartening, the structures proposed are top down and bound up with collective responsibility.”
John Finnie, Scottish Green MSP for the Highlands and islands, welcomed the proposals.
“Whilst it is early days, this report can pave the way for the retention of the board of HIE and importantly HIE’s cultural and social responsibilities,” he said.
“Concerns about HIE’s future were never about not wanting them to collaborate with other enterprise bodies such Scottish Enterprise, nor about having shared public objectives.”
He added: “Whilst the devil will always be in the detail I have growing confidence that this report will facilitate the retention of an autonomous HIE board.”
SNP minister Mr Brown said: “I welcome Professor Lorne Crerar’s detailed report which sets out a number of options for the potential scope, structures and functions for a new statutory board for our enterprise and skills agencies.
“We thank Prof Crerar for taking the time to speak to each of the four agencies, their chairs and a number of experts, with these discussions forming the basis of his recommendations, we will now consider the detail and make a statement to parliament on our next steps in the next few weeks.”