An SNP MP has proposed a compromise deal aimed at ending the bitter row over controversial changes to Highlands and Islands Enterprise.
But Ian Blackford, the member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber, has denied his attempt to broker a deal is tantamount to admitting the original SNP plans were wrong.
A senior SIC councillor has warned the compromise will fail to address the centralising approach he says is being adopted by the Scottish government.
The Holyrood administration provoked a bitter reaction when it confirmed plans to axe HIE’s dedicated board in favour of a new panel which oversees several organisations. Even former HIE chairman James Hunter has been opposed to the plans.
Now, Mr Blackford has sought to diffuse the tension, with a suggestion that HIE could retain its own management or advisory board even if the new national board goes ahead.
He says such a move would recognise the “uniqueness” of the Highlands and Islands while, at the same time, allow work to be carried out across all agencies to secure the best future for Scotland’s economy.
But Mr Blackford said that did not mean the Scottish government had made a mistake with its plans.
“I actually broadly welcomed the proposal that came from the Scottish government in October about setting up an overarching board – one that will see Highlands and Islands Enterprise working in a collaborative way with other agencies,” he said.
“Really what I’m suggesting is that we enshrine what the government wants to do but also recognise the uniqueness of HIE.
“When we look back in history, we do see that there was an advisory council that the Highlands and Islands Development Board had. So it’s about recognising what the government wants to do by taking things on, by strengthening our enterprise agencies, by encouraging collaboration across the different agencies that we have, but also enshrining the uniqueness.”
Stressing HIE had its roots very much in the Highland community, he said a “win-win” solution was possible.
“I think the government makes a very good point. I would point to what happened just before Christmas where, working across agency with the Scottish government, with HIE … that we were able to secure the future of the aluminium smelter in Fort William.
“The government’s right, there are circumstances where working across agencies work very well. That can be strengthened. But it’s about making sure we’ve got that Highland input into HIE, that we do protect what we’ve got that works.”
Chairman of Shetland Islands Council’s development committee, Alastair Cooper, did not think the proposed compromise would assuage growing fears in Highland and Island communities over centralisation.
“I think if you have a national board you will end up with things still being driven by the centre,” he warned.
“To some extent, yes, the Scottish government drives HIE by the amount of money they give them. But I’m not convinced that that is necessarily what the community should be looking for.
“What you have to accept is that HIE will be driven by the central belt. At the end of the day, I think it’s all going to be driven centrally.”
Mr Blackford does not agree with that view and said one of the government’s main objectives was to strengthen economic growth across the country.
I believe that the people of the Highlands and Islands will see that we’re strategically moving forward, but we’re also supporting the integrity and the local accountability of HIE as well. IAN BLACKFORD
“What I have come up with, and something I hope will have broad support in the government, is something that recognises we have to change, but at the same time protects that uniqueness of HIE and the ownership that the Highlands and Islands have for that. I believe that the people of the Highlands and Islands will see that we’re strategically moving forward, but we’re also supporting the integrity and the local accountability of HIE as well.”
He insists the proposed shake-up of the enterprise agency’s board is “not about
“It’s about finding a way that HIE can benefit from the wider enterprise network that we have.”
Asked on the BBC’s Good Morning Scotland whether he was simply admitting the policy had been wrong from the start, he added: “What we had in October was the first report that the government came out with. There is a second phase that will come out in March.
“It’s about listening to public opinion, listening to colleagues, and making sure we have something fit for purpose.
“I actually think if the government adopts this, which I believe they will, we’ll have a very good solution that protects HIE and allows the organisation to move forward in this new century. This will be a fantastic opportunity for Scotland and for the Highlands and Islands.”