NO part of the UK benefited more from EU funding than the Highlands and Islands which means there is now a particular interest in what happens next.

In the 1990s, the region had Objective One status within the EU because of low average earnings, bringing in hundreds of millions in investment. When that threshold was passed, Tony Blair went to Brussels to secure a transition period. Over much of the region, transformation was achieved.

There are still plenty of challenges in peripheral areas characterised by population loss and low pay. Many other parts of Scotland display symptoms which demand intense interest in how post-Brexit funds are allocated – deprivation, a low skills-base, poor infrastructure.

Serious money is involved. The Barnett Formula will deliver half a billion from the UK-wide Levelling Up fund while there is a commitment that the Shared Prosperity Fund “will at least match receipts from EU structural funds” meaning around £200 million a year for Scotland.


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“Post-Brexit opportunities” may be dirty words to some but that debate is over. Throughout Scotland, like the rest of the UK, there should be intensive discussion going on about how these funds can be invested to support the post-Covid recovery.

Instead, we have been invited to believe that what matters about the successor funds is not how they are spent but who makes these decisions. Anything other than a very large cheque going en bloc to the Scottish Government, we are told, represents a “power grab”.

Yet the very opposite can be the truth. This is an opportunity to give power back to the regions, local authorities and communities of Scotland, allowing them to set priorities and seek funding accordingly. In a more rational environment, it would also be an opportunity for Whitehall and Edinburgh to work together.

If Nationalist politicians pursue the “power grab” rhetoric, I suspect they will find a law of diminishing political returns. Across Scotland, there is a real sense of centralisation in Edinburgh having become a blight on democracy and accountability. This is a chance to reverse it.

Far from being anathema to the cities and regions of Scotland, the idea of large-scale government funding going direct to the places where it is needed most without being channelled through Edinburgh will be music to their ears. We need more of that, not less.

The Scottish Government’s longstanding modus operandi has been to take these huge blocks of cash, bestowed either through the Barnett Formula or EU structural funds, sit on it for months or years, then re-package it under their own label, swathed in saltires.

That imperative led them, in 2010, to close down the Highlands and Islands Partnership Programme which had worked effectively and inclusively to determine priorities for the use of structural funds. A similar partnership in the south of Scotland met the same fate. Every penny had to go through Edinburgh for re-branding.

The politics of pan-Scotland centralisation may appeal to a certain mind-set. However, the mind-boggling incompetence which has accompanied it is even harder to defend. This was laid bare in an award-deserving piece of journalism by Martin Williams in this week’s Sunday Herald.

If Scotland was still capable of being scandalised by anything, this story on its own would lead to calls for heads to roll. As it is, the only test in the minds of our ruling cabal will be whether it is “cutting through” – a horribly patronising expression. They may calculate that any story about EU funding is too complicated to be of interest.

However, translated into real life, the fact is that very large sums of money which should have been spent in Scotland’s neediest areas have been lost because of sheer incompetence. For years, the Scottish Government has been falling foul of EU auditors and appears incapable of putting these matters to rights.

The result has been not only the EU’s potential refusal to reimburse spending already incurred but also the loss of untold millions in EU funds as penalties for these failures, not to mention enormous underspends. If more attention was paid to spending the money diligently and efficiently rather than simply demanding control over it, the outcomes would be very much better.

This applies equally to the Covid funds which are flowing in Scotland under the Barnett formula, with minimum transparency about how they are spent and enormous frustrations around the delays and complications which have been introduced. Again, re-branding the money has been given higher priority than responding to urgent needs.


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Let’s take one immediate example. It has been well trailed that today’s Budget will include a £5 billion fund for shops, bars and restaurants. In England, the money will be distributed through local authorities. Would anything be lost if the same thing happened here without any intermediary, intent on delaying in order to re-brand?

Given the system dictates that the lump sum will go to the Scottish Government, is there any reason why – let’s say on Thursday – every penny of these “Barnett consequentials” should not be devolved downwards with the mandate to get the money out the door by the end of the month? That is how truly devolved government could work.

We need more of a power grab – so that powers reside with the level of government best placed to implement them efficiently and for the purposes intended. Scotland is not all one localism and our politics need to reflect that.


Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.