The north’s longest serving MP is calling for Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) to be scrapped and replaced with a body that can better respond to the economic damage caused by the pandemic.
Former Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael claims the Inverness-based agency is now a “shadow of its former self” and there is an urgent need for an organisation with the “reach and influence” required.
Writing exclusively in The P&J today, the Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland says he would support a return to the model of HIE’s predecessor agency, the Highlands and Islands Development Board (HIDB).
Mr Carmichael makes the call amid concern that the severe economic impact of the coronavirus crisis on tourism-dependent rural areas could hasten a return to the “Highland problem” of depopulation.
HIE has recently faced cuts to its budget while also attempting to repair the Cairngorm funicular railway and create the UK’s first vertical-launching spaceport near Tongue.
The Lib Dem chief whip writes: “There is an urgent need now for a Highlands and Islands Development Board for the 21st century.
“We do not need to re-invent the wheel here. The history of the last 55 years can tell us what will work.
“We need a body with the reach and influence that characterised the HIDB – the reach in our business communities and the influence in government to deliver for them.
“Highlands and Islands Enterprise as we currently know it has had its day. It needs to be replaced with a body that can do what we need.”
In 1965, the HIDB was created to try to stem a trend of depopulation that had begun with the Highland Clearances.
The board, which was well funded and had operational freedom, was replaced by HIE in 1991, including 10 local enterprise companies, which were subsequently axed by the SNP government in 2008.
In 2016, the Scottish Government faced heavy criticism after announcing plans to scrap HIE’s dedicated board and replace it with a new panel overseeing all of Scotland’s skills and enterprise agencies.
Opposition parties united against the move and a series of former bosses of the agency backed the Press and Journal’s “Keep HIE Local” campaign, which eventually forced a U-turn.
But Mr Carmichael says: “Today the economic fallout of the Covid pandemic risks taking us back to the same ‘Highland Problem’ identified by Russell Johnston and Wille Ross in the 1960s.
“The need for a renewed vision of economic development with a political and social purpose is every bit as great today as it was then.
“The people who know best what will help business to thrive are the people who run the businesses themselves.
“The people who know best what is good for the community in places as diverse as Shetland, Orkney, Tain, Portree or Islay (to pick a few at random) are the people who live there.
“Remote control from Edinburgh (or even from Inverness) has failed these communities for years. Continue to do that and we shall continue to fail. The only difference will be the speed at which we decline.”
However, a spokesman for Rural Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing said: “Other than expressing general criticism it’s not at all clear what Mr Carmichael is suggesting by way of reform.
“Through its area offices across the Highlands and Islands, HIE continues to play a critical role in helping businesses, creating economic opportunities and supporting communities as we emerge from the global coronavirus pandemic.
“The Scottish Government has targeted funding at businesses in the tourism, hospitality and culture sectors which are so important to the economy of the Highlands and Islands, part of a support package worth over £2.3 billion.
“We are investing up to £135 million in the Inverness and Highland City Region Deal, £25 million in the Argyll and Bute Deal and £32.5 million in the Moray Growth Deal and are also committed to a deal for the Islands.”