Fresh cuts to Highlands and Islands Enterprise’s (HIE) funding in the Scottish budget have sparked outrage amid claims they are the beginning of the end for the organisation.
Politicians described it as a ‘deliberate policy of downgrading HIE’ and ‘death by a thousand cuts’.
One community trust yesterday said the reduction in funding was ‘concerning’ and threatened the future of Cairngorm Mountain and the local economy.
Thursday’s Scottish budget for 2020 revealed HIE’s budget was being reduced from £61.1 million last year to £58.2 million in 2020/21.
That is a further fall from 2018/19, when the budget was £71.7 million, and represents a drop of almost 20% in two years.
The scope of HIE covers more than half Scotland’s land mass, from Shetland to the southern tip of Argyll.
It owns Cairngorm Mountain (Scotland) Ltd and is currently mired in the challenges posed by its non-functioning funicular railway and the financial future of the ski centre.
Aviemore and Glenmore Community Trust (AGCT) is seeking community ownership and management of the Cairngorm ski area and infrastructure and received £90,000 from HIE last year to support its plans.
AGCT spokeswoman Rayna McAllister said: “Obviously no one is happy about HIE’s budget being reduced and we are concerned as to whether and how that will impact on funding for Cairngorm Mountain.
“We will be raising this issue within every forum available to us.
“We see this as another challenge that we will work around to forge a yet stronger community-led solution.
“The Cairngorm Mountain is integral to the local economy, which is why it is crucial to ensure the budget cuts do not impact our community.”
A spokesman for HIE said the budget reduction would create challenges, but the best way forward for Cairngorm would be to return the funicular to service as soon as possible.
He said: “We are also currently focused on developing a new Cairngorm masterplan with strong community input.
“However, we remain confident that we will be able to identify and deliver a positive way forward for Cairngorm.”
Meanwhile Highland and Islands MSP Donald Cameron said ministers were attacking HIE’s autonomy by starving it of the resources.
Mr Cameron said: “We appear to be witnessing a deliberate policy of downgrading HIE.
“We need an enterprise agency that is integrated into our region, understands the challenges and opportunities and has the resources to make a positive contribution.”
The impact on Moray, meanwhile, was at the forefront of fellow Highlands and Islands MSP Jamie Halcro Johnston’s mind.
He said: “HIE runs Forres Enterprise Park and is a partner in the Moray Growth Deal.
“When we need to focus on growing our economy and preparing it for the challenges ahead, the SNP is cutting its budget, risking its ability to carry out even its existing core functions, let alone drive forward new initiatives to support local business.”
Labour’s shadow finance secretary, Highland MSP Rhoda Grant, said the move was ‘incredibly short-sighted’ and she feared the Scottish Government has a merger in its sights.
She said: “This seems to be the death of a thousand cuts.”
A spokesman for HIE added: “We will now carefully review our spending plans for the coming year, ensuring that we continue to make a positive impact across all parts of the Highlands and Islands. “