Published: 15/05/2017 20:59 - Updated: 15/05/2017 21:04

HIE board was never going to be axed, says Sturgeon

Written byEmma Crichton

Nicola Sturgeon at the National Economic Forum in Inverness
Nicola Sturgeon at the National Economic Forum in Inverness

Scotland's economy is performing well but there is still a "huge amount of work" to do, the First Minister said during a visit to the Highlands.

Nicola Sturgeon thinks Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) as a key role to play in boosting growth and denied that the board was ever at risk, despite previous plans to absorb it into a national body.

Speaking at the National Economic Forum at the Kingsmills Hotel in Inverness on Friday, Ms Sturgeon told business leaders she wants to build on the success of enterprise bodies to support businesses through the turbulent process of Britain leaving the EU.

"Despite the many reasons we have for optimism there are many economic challenges and there is still a huge amount of work to be done," she said.

"Recent economic growth figures for Scotland have been disappointing so we need to do more to drive the economy.

"We have relatively low unemployment but we know that we need to reduce our economic inactivity rates and while our productivity has performed well recently in comparison to the rest of the UK, it still lags behind nations like Sweden and Germany and many others across the European continent.

"We need to face up to the significant challenges that will be brought about by Brexit.

"Our enterprise agencies like Highlands and Islands Enterprise already do an extremely good job. In recent years they have stepped up efforts to promote innovation and internationalisation but we want to be sure that the help our enterprise agencies provide is even better co-ordinated and more effectively targeted. We want to make it as easy and as quick as possible for businesses to access support services."

But the First Minister was quick to note her confidence in the enterprise board review, which will see single overarching board created to oversee enterprise and skills agencies, while individual boards retain powers, although she did hint that lessons could be learned from the way the review was handled.

She said: "HIE is key to making sure we take advantage of infrastructure and development opportunities.

"The Scottish Government will always look to learn from how we do these things.

"It was never the intention to get rid of HIE but obviously we were not able to convince everybody of that.

"While we always try to handle things better, the motivation behind the enterprise and skills review is absolutely the right one. We have fantastic people working in HIE, Scottish Enterprise and Skills Development Scotland but we need to make sure that what they are all doing is aligned so that they are adding up to more than the sum of their parts.

"There are massive opportunities in the Highlands and that’s really exciting but we also have challenges in the Scottish economy and if we are going to overcome then we need to make sure everyone is playing at the top of their game."

The National Economic Forum is a government-run event which attracts business experts from across Scotland to discuss issues of the day. This year’s agenda centred on Brexit, a low carbon economy and the future of energy in Scotland.

Ms Sturgeon ended her speech by noting the uncertain times ahead as Brexit looms closer but pledged to continue projects which benefit the Highlands.

"Inverness and the Highlands, like all parts of the country, will benefit significantly in the next decade or so from Scottish Government infrastructure projects," she said.

"We are dualling the A9 and A96, working on better rail connections between the Highlands and central belt and have a commitment to make broadband accessible to every home and business in Scotland by the end of this parliament, without exception," she said.

"I think that the current UK Government’s approach to Brexit, in particular the decision to prioritise control of immigration over continued access to the single market will be to Scotland’s detriment but we are determined to do everything we can to make sure that as discussions progress over the months and years ahead Scotland’s interests are very clearly to the forefront.

"Above all we are determined that Scotland will remain and be seen to be an open, outward looking and internationalist country."


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