The chairman of Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) says he is fully confident about the future of the organisation.
Responding to reports this week speculating about the agency’s future following the Scottish Government’s review of enterprise and skills bodies, Professor Lorne Crerar, said he had absolute reassurance from Scottish Government that HIE will continue in its present form.
He added: “The report on Phase 1 of the Enterprise and Skills Review made very clear that HIE will continue to manage and direct dedicated support for economic and community development across the region.
"The Review has recognised the outstanding success of HIE. Indeed it is testament to that success that there is to be a South of Scotland Agency to replicate the impact HIE has had for businesses and communities across the very diverse economies of our region.
“There will be changes at Board level, with the formation of a new overarching strategic Board to oversee the activities of all the enterprise and skills bodies, which of course includes HIE.
“The Governance arrangements for HIE and how its Board operates has been an important factor in the organisation’s success by ensuring the actions we take are cognisant and reflective of the variety of interests and priorities of our businesses and communities.
“We are in close contact with Scottish Government to ensure that going forward HIE is not in any way diminished and hopefully enhanced, and that the important features of our governance are replicated and not diluted in any new arrangements for the future.”
Earlier a political row erupted across the Highlands and Islands after the Scottish government confirmed the abolition of the Highlands and Islands Enterprise governing board, along with a range of other enterprise and skills agency boards.
Deputy First Minister John Swinney told MSPs attending parliamentary questions that HIE’s board will be abolished once a single national board is established.
Mr Swinney confirmed the government’s “intention is that, once established, this overarching board will replace individual agency boards.”
Facing the axe are the boards of HIE, Scottish Enterprise, the Scottish Funding Council, Scottish Development International, and Skills Development Scotland.
In addition a new enterprise and skills agency – under the same “overarching board” – will be established to cover the Borders counties.
The aim of the changes is “to bring greater integration and focus to the delivery of our enterprise and skills -support to businesses and users of the skills system.”
And the plan says that “recognising the different social, economic and community development challenges facing the Highlands and Islands, we will maintain dedicated support which is locally -based, managed and directed by HIE.”
But protests immediately erupted from Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative MSPs.
Highlands and Islands Labour MSP and Rural Economy and Connectivity spokesperson Rhoda Grant said: “I am outraged at this blatant centralisation. 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. Sadly the SNP Government appears to be rewriting history and offering an even shabbier deal."
The decision was also heavily criticised by Shetlands MSP Tavish Scott, who has insisted the move represents the end of “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.
“This is the latest centralisation imposed by the SNP. I will work with all parties to attempt to stop this retrograde step as the Scottish government attempt to railroad this through Holyrood.
And Donald Cameron, Highlands and Islands MSP, Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, tabled an amendment in the Scottish Parliament to say that MSPs acknowledge “the contribution of Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) to business development in island communities, and notes significant concerns that a new national board for HIE, Scottish Enterprise and other agencies may lead to a centralisation of services at the expense of the local skills, knowledge and expertise of HIE."