Hill and Glen: The Highlands is different
Our Highland voice is being heard at the heart of government,” said Chief Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander as he heralded confirmation of a City Deal for Inverness, which lies within his own constituency.
In chancellor George Osborne’s budget it was announced the city would be formally considered for the package, which is hoped will attract £300m investment to the Highlands. “The City Deal will build on the enormous amount of good work that has gone into making Inverness the thriving city it is,” said Alexander.
SNP Councillor Drew Hendry, who leads Highland Council and is standing against Alexander in the General Election, says his opponent is trying to take the credit. “The historical record will show you I called for this in July last year,” he says.
While the political point scoring is familiar, the Highlands is quite unlike any other region of the UK. Highland Council serves a third of Scotland’s land area, a region 20 per cent larger than Wales and the same size as Belgium. Hendry’s ward alone is the size of Luxembourg, he tells Holyrood.
Hendry says his work involves a lot of travelling to meet the needs of communities separated by great distances and understanding how a “city region economy” works: “Because while Inverness is a growing city and an incredible hub for the Highlands, the whole place is, even though it’s a large area, interconnected, and you have to make sure you balance the needs of people in Lochaber, Nairn, Dalwhinnie and Wick with people in the more populated areas.”
Transport and connectivity remain a challenge for the region, but recent developments have seen the Scottish Government commit to investing in rail and road infrastructure and extending broadband capability. Hendry welcomes this but says it was long overdue. “We’ve been for far too long, for decades, left at the back of the queue when it comes to new developments,” he says. Rural areas like the Highlands should be “front-loaded” in future development decisions, nevertheless, the Highlands is a place of “amazing opportunity”, he insists.
“This is, quite literally, a new frontier for Scotland in terms of opportunity going forward. We have outstanding resources in terms of our people, our tourism, and of course abundant possibilities for renewable energy, life sciences, IT development and a range of other things.”
"We’ve been for far too long, for decades, left at the back of the queue when it comes to new developments"
Hendry believes the City Deal will free up public money for the rest of the Highlands, but opposition councillors fear services are being increasingly centralised. Councillor Jaci Douglas, co-leader of the independent group on Highland Council, says local decision making has been undermined by centralised police and health services, and warns against the council making similar moves. “There seems to be a move towards a ‘one-size -fits-all’ approach which can never be in the Highlands’ best interests,” she tells Holyrood.
While Douglas says access to social care services is becoming difficult due to a central integrated service, Hendry says the unique way health and social care has been integrated in the Highlands can be an exemplar for the rest of the country. Unlike other local authorities, which have set up integrated corporate boards with health boards, the Highlands has been using the ‘lead agency’ model which has seen the NHS board take responsibility for adult social care, and the council become the lead agency for children’s services. NHS Highland Chief Executive Elaine Mead told Holyrood last year: “The lead agency model is very hard to do, but our experience is it could offer far greater benefits. You do need a high level of trust, but I think accountability and responsibility are much clearer.”
Hendry says it is an example of how Highland Council uses a different model. “We’ve taken the approach of forgetting about who own the budgets and thinking about it as a public pound. I think that has borne results, but it’s been quite a leap of faith for us to do that, and you can only make that leap of faith where you have genuine belief across the different organisations that you can achieve something special, and I think while there is a huge amount of work still to be done, the early signs are this is absolutely the right way to go.”
Highland politics, too, is different from elsewhere with two independent MSPs, and independent councillors making up the largest group in the council. Douglas says they “often get overlooked nationally as we are not a political party, but a formal group working together in a consensual and cooperative way”.
The independents ran the council until 2012, when the SNP formed a minority coalition with the Liberal Democrats and Labour to oust them. “Politics has finally buried democracy in the Highlands,” said senior independent Helen Carmichael at the time.
Hendry, though, believes the administration has worked constructively to build consensus, pointing to a recent compromises in the budget. “One of the things I’ve been very proud of about our administration is we’ve never been defeated on anything like that, but what we have done is we’ve taken on board concerns and made adjustments where appropriate.”
What the council coalition has been able to do, he argues, is take forward a strategic view for the region. “One of the limitations of the independents is they’ve been unable for many years to take a strategic view and as a result, the council quite often had to take a lead from officers, and decisions could be quite fuzzy,” he says.
For Hendry, examples of strategic thinking include development of the ‘West Link’ construction project in west Inverness, which he says has been on the books for 40 years, and the new University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) campus in Inverness. “There’s lots to be had here, and people want to see not only people of different parties breaking down the barriers to make sure they get the best outcomes, but they also want to see the different levels of government working together to get the best outcomes they can,” he says.