Brian Wilson: Grand gesture needs to be recreated

Groundbreaking work of the past 50 years has to be continued to save peripheral Scotland, argues Brian Wilson

Willie Ross, as secretary of state for Scotland, helped create the Highlands and Islands Development Board. Picture: Gordon Rule

With Scottish politics reduced to a constant girn over “powers”, the 50th anniversary of the Highlands and Islands Development Board’s birth recalls another age when politicians of stature and vision actually drove change.

Holyrood has produced nothing remotely comparable, reflecting the power of the state and its agencies to make a difference. From the debates of the time, radicalism of intent shines through. There was history to be redressed and exceptional measures required.

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Half a century on, much of the founding agenda has been achieved. Willie Ross, the secretary of state who carried legislation through Parliament, referred to the Highlander as “the man on Scotland’s conscience”. In today’s largely prosperous Highlands, that characterisation would seem absurd.

Communications have been transformed, headline population statistics stabilised, a university established and the City of Inverness declared. To all of this, the old HIDB and its successor body, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, contributed mightily.

However, one need not dig deep for a different story. Where I live, the school roll is at its lowest ebb, the age profile more imbalanced than ever, employment scarce and services under strain. Around the Highlands and Islands periphery, such realities are the norm. Impacts on language and culture are proportionate, since you do not have language without people.

So headline statistics are deceptive. Growth points grow while peripheries decline. Even if Scotland’s conscience has bigger things to worry about, the original raison d’etre for the HIDB remains strong; to reverse depopulation and decline in communities on the edge. Building the City of Inverness was the easy bit.

The first HIDB chairman, Sir Robert Grieve, articulated this dichotemy in his inaugural report: “No matter what is achieved in the eastern or central Highlands,” he wrote, “the board will be judged by its ability to hold population in the true crofting areas.” That historic challenge has long since been superceded and now, in this anniversary year, demands revisiting.

Grieve, a planner of distinction, was himself the architect of a growth-point strategy for investment, defining the Moray Firth as “unquestionably the most important of these areas”. Inevitably, the effect of this approach over the decades has been to suck population away from “true crofting areas” towards more prosperous centres.

What has never been achieved is a coherent strategy for population retention within peripheral areas. Of course there have been piecemeal successes and, unarguably, things would be far worse without 50 years of interventionism from an agency which was allotted a social as well as economic purpose.

The HIDB served the seven “crofting counties”, from Kintyre to Muckle Flugga. In the 1990s, for political reasons, these boundaries were extended to include a large slice of North-east Scotland. The effect was to pull HIE further away from the litmus tests of the crofting periphery towards the highly successful Inverness growth point.

One recent manifestation is the way the University of the Highlands and Islands has evolved. Conceived as a federal institution, with centres scattered around the region, it has increasingly become what was initially rejected – the University of Inverness with a scatter of outposts. HIE money has poured into the bricks and mortars of an educational institution.

Meanwhile, the “true crofting areas” continue to be marginalised by the disadvantages of peripherality exacerbated by the “one size fits all” philosophy of today’s Scotland. I was shown recently a 22-page form which a crofter – probably elderly and certainly not in it for the money – had to complete in order to qualify for a financial pittance. Most have given up and, in many places, crofting is on its last legs.

The coalition government allocated £100 million to broadband development and the task was handed to HIE. They now boast that 84 per cent of the region’s population will be covered but the corollary is that 16 per cent won’t. In other words, technology with the power to reduce disadvantage will again serve to increase it. Approaching the challenge from the other perspective does not even seem to have been considered.

Regeneration of marginal, peripheral communities which add so much to Scotland’s character and self-image remains a great and exciting cause which can only be undertaken at a micro level with the maximum degree of flexibility. The needs of people trying to live in these places have to be paramount rather than the bureaucratic silos from which decline is managed, or quangos scattering environmental designations like confetti.

Basically, the challenge is the same as it always was – in order to stay in these places, people need access to work, land and housing. It is not rocket science and there are plenty other rural societies to learn from. But it does require an approach to economic and social development which is now as far removed from the needs of Inverness as from Dundee or Dumfries.

I have long argued for that distinction to be acknowledged through the creation of a new or heavily revamped agency, devoted to the most economically, socially and culturally fragile areas within Scotland, armed with the powers it needs to approach its task. That would be as imaginative a step today as creating the HIDB was in 1965 – which is why it won’t happen.

Land remains central to all of this. In 1965, Willie Ross said: “Land is the basic resource of the Highlands and Islands and any plan for economic and social development would be meaningless if proper use of land were not a part of it.” He believed the HIDB had been given these powers but it transpired otherwise. A decade ago, the movement towards community land ownership demonstrated what can be achieved when land is brought into the equation. But the need for comprehensive reform remains as vital – and as remote – a prospect as ever.

Another way to mark the anniversary would be to revisit Willie Ross’s great phrase from 50 years ago. Who now is the man, woman or child on Scotland’s conscience? With the attainment gap between rich and poor children actually widening, it should not be hard to find an answer and then to do something about it – all over Scotland!

For the avoidance of doubt, the fabled “powers” over everything I have discussed now reside in Edinburgh. There really is no hiding place.