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“For The Highlands to thrive, government needs to back off” – Magnus Linklater

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For The Highlands to thrive, government needs to back off – Magnus Linklater

Too much meddling and bureaucracy is preventing Scottish companies from growing

I think enough time has gone by for me to tell the story of how my mother saved the very best cheese company in the Highlands. Back in the 1960s, Reggie and Susannah Stone, who lived in Tain, had started making Crowdie cheese — in their bathtub, I think. It was delicious stuff but it broke pretty well every hygiene rule in the book, and when the health inspector came he ordered it to be closed down immediately.

My mother, Marjorie, then a county councillor, heard about it and suggested that the Stones be given a chance to put things right. This they did, and Marjorie was invited to open the very first production line. Today, Highland Fine Cheese is a thriving business, employing 16 local people. It is a good example of the most effective way to bolster a rural economy — back small and medium companies, give local enterprises the facilities they need to operate, help them through the regulations, offer them start-up advice. And then stand back.

The history of government intervention in the Highlands tends to be the reverse. It is littered with grand and spectacular examples of failure — the pulp mill at Fort William, the massive smelter at Invergordon, the Dounreay nuclear power plant and now, just possibly, the Lochaber aluminium operation, owned by Sanjeev Gupta as part of a £330 million deal with the Scottish government, whose future is uncertain.

At one level, ministers seem to understand the problem. A Scottish government report published last week on repopulating rural areas in the west and north of Scotland, emphasised leaving decisions to local authorities rather than imposing them from on high. But it could not quite bring itself to talk the language of business. It was full of jargon such as “taking on local co-ordination and leadership in putting their ‘place’ under the magnifying glass, working out what is required, and collaborating with partners to develop and deliver the tailored solutions required”.

That is not just gobbledegook, it is the wrong way round — it should be the small companies themselves coming up with ideas and making the running, rather than having “tailored solutions” imposed upon them.

And when it comes to government interference — well, it just cannot help itself. Take the example of the Coul Links golf course near Dornoch, the Sutherland town whose own course regularly features amongst the best-loved in the world. The plans for a new 18-hole course have been worked on for more than four years now, and it would offer substantial employment. Turned down by the government on the ground that it threatened “one of the last remaining undeveloped dune systems” in Scotland, the proposal was reduced in size, with special measures taken to protect and restore the dunes, involving an investment of £500,000 over the next five years. This time, the plan has been called in with cross-party backing, and the local council approved it but is still at risk of being rejected by ministers.

We can detect the hand of the SNP’s Green Party partners in the seeking to turn down the plan, as every conservationist group is against it. But environmental groups will always oppose any development that threatens nature. I grew up on the north side of the Cromarty Firth, where the sand dunes were also described as irreplaceable, though they are the most common feature of the northeast coastline. It became the place where the oil rigs were built for the North Sea, and today it manufactures wind towers. Last time I was there, the oyster catchers had moved a bit further up the bay, but seemed otherwise untroubled. I doubt if they would mind much about a golf course. What seems intractable is the way central government seems always to bend to the wind of group think, rather than listen to the voices of the individuals who actually live in the Highlands, and know only too well what is needed to make it work.

One thing local businesses, and small enterprises, all need is the infrastructure that makes remote operations possible. Working from home (WFH in the current jargon) is probably the single reason the population of the Highland counties has risen faster in recent years than in any other part of Britain.

Artists in Orkney, computer specialists in Lochaber, nail varnish manufacturers in Invergordon, social enterprises in Inverness, all thrive, courtesy of the internet; last weekend I met a computational geneticist who had just moved into our area, and was happily working from home for a German company — no government could dream up such a thing.

Most, when asked, will talk about the need to extend superfast broadband connection to remote areas so that they can run their businesses efficiently. The government has promised, via its much-vaunted R100 scheme, to ensure all Scotland’s rural areas are connected, but has yet to deliver (conflict-of-interest alert — our part of Highland Perthshire has so far been excluded).

One voice ministers might just listen to is that of Professor Jim Hunter, historian, academic, business promoter and SNP member, who has chronicled the Highlands’ history of oppression through the 19th century clearances, the crofters’ rebellions, the potato famine, and the emigrations to America, in many brilliantly researched books. As chairman of Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) for six years, he brought this background of knowledge to bear on the area’s modern-day economy, and his conclusion was clear — keep government at arms’ length.

He said that when he was at HIE, the government saw it more as a “delivery agency” than an independent body, and argued that instead of dictating policy, it should encourage the individual self-esteem and self-confidence of the Highland population.

When Hunter handed over, in 2004, he wrote: “The Highlands and Islands are best served, developmentally and otherwise, if and when government … seeks to devolve, rather than take to itself, decision-making.” Hands off, in short. Twenty years on, that still seems to be true.

Cross-party group of MSP’s urges Scottish Ministers to “save Coul Links” and support Highland communities

Cross-party group of MSP’s urges Scottish Ministers to “save Coul Links” and support Highland communities…-enemies-of-the-people

Hear a fantastic interview with Fergus Ewing talking about cross-party support for Coul Links (scroll to 2hrs, 42 mins, 59 seconds).

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