The Highland economy is strong – but it could be stronger. The task for the Scottish Government is to drive growth in productivity and the economy. Not as an end in itself but so that we have job opportunities, career progression and a steady income.
HIE has long contributed to that growth. So, let’s be clear on what’s happening: 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.
I welcome a review of HIE. It’s been 50 years since the Highlands and Islands Development Board was first established to serve the Highlands and Islands, home to ‘the man on Scotland’s conscience’.
Since then, our population has risen, new initiatives have been developed and our own University of the Highlands and Islands has opened. HIE has been instrumental – with its unique methods of intervention, its integration of social and economic goals and its adaptation to new enterprises like renewable energy.
But there is room for improvement – to empower HIE with more resources and to expose HIE to more international opportunities. All that, whilst maintaining the current management structure, office of chief executive, the staff and local decision-making powers. In other words, the Scottish Government’s review was to strengthen HIE’s service to communities.
That is devolution of power, not centralisation.
Don’t just believe what I say – look at the evidence.
Look at how the Scottish Government worked with HIE to safeguard 150 jobs, and potentially create hundreds more, at the Lochaber smelter. Look at the A9 being finally dualled, after decades of waiting. Look at the tens of affordable homes being built across the region. Look at the communities who own acres and acres of their own land. Look at the investment in tourism, food and drink and renewable energy across the Highlands.
As MSP for an area of the Highlands, who has lived, worked and gone to school here, I look at these things and I see a government who is empowering Highland communities.