The Scottish Government is drawing up plans to resurrect a policy of moving civil service jobs from the central belt to the Highlands and islands – and has been urged to start with CalMac and the new National Care Service.
Officials have been “considering dispersing government workforce more widely across Scotland”, with the Highlands and Islands to be “prioritised as a location”.
The move is being discussed at local and national government amid growing alarm at the existential threat posed to many rural communities from depopulation.
After coming to power in 2007, the SNP was criticised for centralising services and abandoning the previous Labour-Liberal Democrat administration’s policy of moving jobs north, although it established the Scottish Land Commission in Inverness in 2017.
However, ministers committed to looking again at the government’s “workplace footprint”, in a recent “population strategy”.
And newly-published minutes from a March meeting of the Convention of the Highlands and Islands show that officials said that there “remains an ambition” to disperse more jobs, and that “when new government departments and units are being developed, the Highlands and Islands should be prioritised as a location”.
Highland Council leader Margaret Davidson believed there was an “opportunity” for Scotland’s new National Care Service to be based in the region.
“We put what we thought was a strong bid in to get the new welfare department, but that went to Dundee,” she said.
National Care Service
“But there are opportunities that are going to come up. I mean, they are talking about a National Care Service.
“I have huge reservations about the way they are talking about it, but if they are going to set up a new care service, why couldn’t that come north?
I have huge reservations about the way they are talking about it, but if they are going to set up a new care service, why couldn’t that come north?”
“We have an opportunity here. We’ve got a huge rural area as well as an urban area. We could set up something that really works for the whole of Scotland.
“We’ve got that opportunity and there are other things we can look at. There are other things that could easily move out of Edinburgh, and the UK Government is also looking at bringing offices north – well look a bit further north.”
Ms Davidson also suggested the council, Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) and other local organisations should be having similar discussions.
“Scotland doesn’t end at the central belt. There is most of it north of there,” she said.
“Having said that, it’s actually up to the council and HIE and the other public agencies to look at their distribution of jobs.
“Public sector jobs have never been as important as they are now.”
Publicly-owned ferry operator CalMac is based at Gourock, but there has long been debate over whether Stornoway or Oban would be more appropriate.
Western Isles SNP MSP Alasdair Allan said: “Clearly there is an openness in the Scottish Government to the idea of dispersing more public sector jobs around the country and this is particularly relevant in the islands.
“Lockdown has taught us all that many jobs don’t need to be done centrally by people commuting into big offices every day.
“Many people want to have a combination of working at home and perhaps hotdesking in a small office near where they live.
“To take just one example, there is no reason why, in future, more of CalMac’s office staff could not live on the islands served by CalMac ferries.”
The Labour-Lib Dem policy of dispersing public sector jobs included the controversial relocation of the headquarters of Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) from Edinburgh to Inverness in 2006, while Jack McConnell was first minister.
It cost £22 million and 55 workers moved north, with 109 opting for redundancy instead.
Labour-Lib Dem policy
Discussions are thought to be currently focussed on “new government departments and units”, rather than existing agencies, although it was previously mooted that Historic Environment Scotland could switch to Fort George.
Highlands and Islands Labour MSP Rhoda Grant said: “I welcome this change of heart from the Scottish Government.
“This policy could have been key to growing communities and halting depopulation.
“However, the SNP government has relentlessly centralised and despite this apparent shift of policy seem not to have changed direction.
“For example their centralisation of air traffic control flies in the face of this stated policy.
“Hopefully this is not just words because the Highlands and Islands desperately need this change in policy.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “A number civil service jobs are already undertaken outwith Edinburgh and Glasgow, such as Social Security Scotland in Dundee and the Scottish Public Pension Agency in Galashiels.
“Working from home has been the default for the majority of Scottish Government staff during the pandemic.
“We are developing a hybrid working model which will enable Scottish Government staff, where the role allows, to have more flexibility to live and work in locations across Scotland.
“Our population strategy also recognises this opportunity and we are committed to exploring the possibilities of further distributing our workforce.”