Letter from Edinburgh - Friday 3rd March 2017

Shetland has had its first ever Business Week. Twenty-five separate events with more than 400 people at workshops, talks and a chance to discuss what works and what need work. 

The initiative is between the Federation of Small Businesses, Business Gateway which provides start-up advice for people, and Highlands and Islands Enterprise. It is about celebrating and recognising that business across Shetland creates jobs, pays taxes which are invested in schools and hospitals, and is the backbone of the economy.

Seafood is worth £300 million. The tourism and food and drink sectors are growing. Oil and gas will always matter. EnQuest becoming the Sullom Voe Terminal Boss is likely to provide real opportunities for local engineering and other firms. So there is much to be positive about.

The row over business rates illustrates why any Scottish government must strike a balance between taxation and creating growth. Conditions for growth include a planning system that is not a police force, superfast broadband everywhere and a business support structure that works.

That is what HIE is about. Supporting businesses to develop with bespoke solutions tailored to the need of our area. Yet if a new report is adopted by government, HIE will cease to be a strategic body charged with economic and social development for the Highlands and Islands. Instead it will become a delivery arm of central government. This report, written by the HIE chairman, recommends HIE’s boar is downgraded to deliver the government’s agenda. Not the agenda for the Highlands and Islands.

Central government does not seem to understand we are not all the same. Glasgow and Baltasound are difference. We should celebrate diversity, not try to parcel everything into a one size fits all box with a tartan ribbon. 

Governments like to control things. Scotland’s police are a centralised force. The NHS is controlled by the health minister. And now economic strategy.

In times past, the forerunner of HIE was the HIDB – the “Highlands Board”. Serious people ran it. Jim Hunter, now an SNP member, says government should leave well alone.

Should a board who gets its money from central government not just do what the government say? That is the government’s argument. Everything must be “aligned”. But to what? What if the direction of the government is wrong? Where are the people to say, hold on a minute?

Back to business rates. The hotel and pub trade attacked the eye watering rise in business rates. Newspapers in particular ran effective campaigns explaining the financial impact. But no government body, including Scottish Enterprise, criticised the rate hike. They said nothing. In the future a badly devised government police affecting business will be opposed by whom? Good question.

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