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Background Info

We believe that the decision by the Scottish Government to amalgamate the boards of Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) with the boards of Scottish Enterprise, Scottish Development International, Skills Development Scotland and the Scottish Funding Council will downgrade in importance the work of HIE and is detrimental to the economy and communities of the Highlands and Islands. It seems inconceivable that a board, with the overarching responsibility for such a diverse set of agencies, can give the same priority to the needs of the Highlands and Islands that the area currently enjoys.

The Highlands and Islands accounts for around half the land mass of Scotland but has a population density that is comparable with the northern parts of Finland and Sweden. Whilst the mid 2011 figures from the National Records of Scotland give a population density the City of Glasgow at 3412 people per square km (p/km2) and Edinburgh at 1878 p/km2, the comparable figures for the Eileen Siar and Highland council areas are 8 and 9 p/km2 respectively. Add to this the Scottish Government report (Highlands and Islands Scotland: European Regional Development Fund 2007-2013: Structural Funds Operational Programme, July 2008), which indicates that the inner Moray Firth (Nairn, Inverness, Dingwall, Alness and Invergordon) contains nearly 20% of the region’s population. 61% of residents live in rural areas or settlements of fewer than 5,000 people, with a substantial number living on one of 90+ inhabitated islands. This Scottish Government report goes on to say: “Low population density leads to additional costs in the provision of goods and services due to a lack of economies of scale and a corresponding business base while depopulation, particularly in fragile areas, can have an adverse effect on community confidence and service sustainability.”

In 1965, the UK government recognised that, despite its efforts over many years, the depopulation of the Highlands and Islands was still a major problem and, although the quality of life had improved, it still lagged behind the less remote areas of the country. This led to the abandonment of the ‘one-size fits all’ approach and the establishment of the Highlands and Islands Development Board (HIDB), which become HIE in 1991.  The principal objectives of the HIDB were to assist the people of the Highlands and Islands to improve their economic and social conditions and to enable the Highlands and Islands to play a more effective part in the economic and social development of the nation. The agency was well funded, given the powers it required to act on its own and, most importantly, was free of ministerial direction. There, also, was a realisation that strengthening communities would be an important step in building the economy and providing the jobs needed to stem de-population. This founding principle is at risk with the new board, which will re-introduce a national, ‘one-size fits all’ approach that failed to serve the Highlands and Islands in the past. It will abandon the regional, and community sensitive, approach that has been so successful in stemming de-population, growing the economy and stabilising fragile communities across the area.

There is a requirement for HIE to work to strengthen communities by developing social enterprise, community projects and to deliver a wide range of cultural, arts and heritage activities. This aim is not shared by any of the other agencies that are to be administered through the joint board, we are concerned that its importance to the social cohesion of the Highlands and Islands will not be recognised by the new board members who will, by necessity, come with a range of backgrounds and experience not, necessarily, gained in the Highlands and Islands.

There is no case for changing the current system of a locally based board, which has helped HIDB/HIE achieve a great deal, especially when more needs to done. A national joint approach will fragment the focus of the board and run the risk of relegating the needs of the Highlands and Islands behind those of the more heavily populated parts of Scotland. This decision turns the clock back to the days when centralised political control failed the Highlands and Islands and we urge the Scottish Parliament to persuade the Scottish Government to reverse its decision to create a single Scotland-wide board responsible for enterprise and skills.

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