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Tavish clashes with SNP over HIE board merger

Tavish Scott MSP.

OPPOSITION politicians have criticised the SNP government following an announcement that the boards which oversee the work of regional development agencies including Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) are to be merged.

Deputy first minister John Swinney confirmed that HIE’s board would be disbanded at Holyrood, telling MSPs the government’s “intention is that, once established, this overarching board will replace individual agency boards”.

It is not clear what effect that change will have on the ground, but Shetland MSP Tavish Scott – who for years has been accusing the SNP of centralising all manner of services – described it as “the end for bespoke economic development in the Highlands and Islands”.

“HIE will become a branch office of the Scottish Government,” he said. “There will be no board to provide a Highlands and Islands focus – instead once again there will be top down centralised control from the central belt.”

Scott described it as “the latest centralisation imposed by the SNP” and said he would work with all parties “to attempt to stop this retrograde step as the Scottish government attempt to railroad this through Holyrood.”

Given SNP councillors on Highland Council were opposed, he described it as a “true test” of SNP list MSPs in the Highlands and Islands: “Will they put their party before their areas?”

One of those list MSPs, Maree Todd, acknowledged the move was “causing some concern in my constituency”.

But she had been “reassured that there will be no change on the ground, the fantastic work that HIE do to ensure a sustainable economic future for the Highlands and Islands, including Shetland, will continue”.

Todd pointed to the government’s engagement with the Our Islands Our Future campaign, a forthcoming Islands Bill and national islands plan, none of which points to “top down centralised control from the central belt”.

She said the advantage HIE would gain is “more international support – both for attracting inward investment and enabling exports”.

“The advantage goes both ways,” Todd said. “I regularly highlight down here in parliament, that necessity is the mother of invention and that sometimes, because of the challenges we face in the Highlands and Islands, we are ahead of the pack in terms of creativity and innovation.

“The rest of Scotland would benefit from looking north more often and I hope that this change might encourage more of that. We can lead the way to sustainable growth for all of Scotland.

Labour list MSP Rhoda Grant said she was “outraged at this blatant centralisation” and said it “beggars belief” the SNP was removing power and influence over HIE while staging a parliamentary debate on how to empower island communities on Thursday.

“The loss of this board takes us back to early 1960 when Willie Ross said that no part of Scotland has been given a shabbier deal by history,” Grant said. “Sadly the SNP government appears to be rewriting history and offering an even shabbier deal.”

HIE Shetland and Moray area manager Rachel Hunter said: “HIE have been in close contact with the Scottish Government throughout the review and will continue to work with them to ensure the economic needs and opportunities for the Highlands and Islands are addressed as we progress through phase two.”