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The Highlands and Islands deserve answers over post-Brexit funding

4 min read

In the Highlands and Islands EU structural funds have been vital. As we get closer to a potential cliff-edge Brexit, the lack of details to allow communities to plan for the future is nothing short of alarming, writes Drew Hendry

They’re worth more than €2.4 billion per year UK wide. They are called the European Regional Development Fund and the European Social Fund. As part of their Brexit assurances, the Tories have promised to match this funding, yet details of the proposed replacement, the so-called ‘Shared Prosperity Fund', have been long promised – including a guarantee of before the end of 2018. Deep into 2019, we have no details. The latest excuse is that Brexit makes it hard to plan, “it’s complex”. It is absurd to admit that future funding plans can’t be set out because this country’s such a mess no-one knows of its future

In the Highlands and Islands, these structural funds have been crucial in the founding and continued existence of the University of the Highland and Islands. They’ve literally built bridges, supported vital low-carbon investment, provided critical support to help small businesses grow with a direct and positive impact on people, jobs and communities where it is traditionally more challenging to do so.

Crucially, organisations, often for their very survival, need to know what funding strands will be available to them after next year. Charities, community groups and our public sector are facing enormous pressure to identify future support, some are already closing their doors due to financial uncertainty.

Yet the only detail given so far by the Tory government suggest it is looking to grab powers from Scotland and impose conditionality on future funding, that and the big idea, repeated with glee, to put Union Jacks on all projects it covers.

My constituency is part of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, a region with unique challenges – population sparsity, remoteness and fragility of connections. Highland farmers have already been short-changed on EU convergence funding, which was admitted to as 'spent elsewhere' by Westminster. We have, however, benefited hugely from the structural funds which have been administered by the Scottish Government. They have overseen the use of nearly €1 billion from these funds between 2014 and 2020. Money used to support people getting into work and out of poverty, improve their education and skills, and invest in our infrastructure and communities. 

It is imperative that UK Ministers now work with all the devolved administrations to agree future funding arrangements that respect the devolution settlement. However, the proposed fund to boost Regional Development across the whole UK is to be overseen by the Minister for Housing, Communities and Local Government, whose major job is judged on the success of regional development of England specifically, raising obvious questions of likely bias and risks for funding projects in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Analysis from the Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions estimates that the UK would have been entitled to approximately 13 billion euros of Regional Development Funding for the 2021-2027 period if it stayed in the EU. The same analysis showed that Scotland would lose over €840 million by 2027.

The Westminster cross-party parliamentary group on post-Brexit Regional Funding produced a report which has taken evidence from groups across the UK and is firm in its conclusion that the amount and proportion going to each nation should be maintained – and emphasising the importance of respecting devolution and avoiding a power grab.

This has been driven by MPs from all parties and countries in the UK, but it is a disgrace that, more than two years after the vote, 15 months after the last election, the action of backbench MPs has produced vastly more concrete public details and suggestions than the machinery of the UK government.

As we get closer to a potential cliff-edge Brexit, the lack of details to allow for communities and charities to plan is now nothing short of alarming.

In my debate today I will repeat my calls for details of the so-called prosperity fund and demands that the devolution settlement will be respected.

Drew Hendry is SNP MP for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey and spokesperson for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy




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