Letter from Edinburgh - Friday 9th December 2016


Many moons ago I met the then Chairman of the Highlands & Islands Development Board. Bob Cowan was a Highland lion. He led the former HIDB with great skill, vision and a determination to always put the area first. No government was immune. The HIDB, charged with the economic and social development of the area, went from strength to strength. 

The idea came from Russell Johnston, a highland liberal who realised that the area needed an organisation to champion its future. The incoming Labour government in 1964 turned the idea into reality and the Board was born.

What Bob Cowan would make of the current government is something we will never know. Edinburgh wants to abolish the Highlands & Islands Enterprise Board. Inevitably they plan a centralised board controlling up to 5 quangos. It is expected this central belt dominated corporate monstrosity will be chaired by a minister. It is wrong on so many counts.

Does a board matter? In this case yes. The HIE board under Lorne Crearer’s careful tutelage has a single minded focus on the Highlands & Islands. It has championed broadband reaching the far flung parts. Has that happened yet? No. Sandness, Unst and Skeld to name but three are still without any investment in superfast broadband. But without a HIE board making that case, nothing will happen. How often would broadband in Uyeasound reach the agenda of a super quango based in Glasgow? Never.

This week the government’s case unravelled. Asked to explain who had made the case for abolishing the HIE board a government minister refused. He could not name any individual or organisation who promoted a centralised super board. So this change is inspired by the Scottish Government. It is their creation.

Having failed to win the argument as they have no evidence to support it, there is no parliamentary support. Only SNP ministers think it’s a good idea. Some SNP backbenchers are questioning their government’s approach. Parliament will vote on the HIE Board in the new year. The government will lose. Will they accept their plan has been rejected by parliament or carry on ignoring a democratic vote? That should spice up January.

The other talking point this week was around the publication of international stats on science, reading and maths in Scotland’s schools. The analysis is deeply worrying. But it should not be seen in isolation. Scotland has slipped from being above average to average or worse than average across comparable nations. We have had nine years of an SNP Government, four education ministers and the implementation of Curriculum for Excellence. A period of constant change – in curriculum guidance – 20,000 pages and counting, new exams, and government initiatives such as teaching science and languages in primary schools.

The government’s response is to promise more revolution. Standardised national assessments for children aged 5 and onwards. School league table to provide comparisons. But no mention of money. Next week the Scottish Government will publish its budget. Will the budget protect spending in schools?

 


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