The Scottish Government has just finished consulting on proposals for Scotland’s first Land Use Strategy, but as it stands, there are worries about how effective it will be
“As for whether the strategy will succeed, I say – cynically – that if any farmer ever read the strategy, that would be a success.” Although partly meant in jest, the comment from NFU Scotland’s head of rural policy Jonathan Hall is a good indication of just one of the difficulties the Scottish Government faces as it tries to implement Scotland’s first ever Land Use Strategy (LUS).
Speaking at an evidence session on the strategy held by the Scottish Parliament’s Rural Affairs Committee in December, Hall and two panels of witnesses from various organisations, including the Macaulay Land Use Institute, Scottish Environment Protection Agency, Royal Town Planning Institute, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Scottish Environment LINK, and Scottish Rural Property and Business, assessed the Scottish Government’s first draft of the LUS. The verdict? Could be better. With the consultation on the proposals now closed, there is a general feeling that the Government must go back to the drawing board, tighten up the strategy and come back with a document that sets out proposals, policies and timescales.
When the Climate Change Act was passed last year, one of its requirements was that a strategy setting out objectives in relation to sustainable land use must be published by 31 March 2011. Many environmental organisations saw this as a good opportunity for the Scottish Government to really get its house in order in terms of putting Scotland on the path to a sustainable future. In a paper published last December, Scottish Environment LINK said that although the LUS was a result of climate legislation, it “clearly presents a significant wider opportunity to promote the type of integrated multi-purpose land use which LINK member bodies have been advocating for many years.” But, as Hall told the Rural Affairs Committee, at the end of the day, the success or failure of the strategy will depend on whether or not it is implemented by those most able to put it into action. And in its current form, there are considerable question marks as to whether that is possible.
“It does tend to contain relatively woolly, broad brush statements because it is trying to be all things to all people. To be of maximum benefit, it needs to be clear – people need to be given clear strategic direction and that takes decision making within government to say, ‘this is the direction government is heading’,” says Jackie McCreery, director of policy and parliamentary affairs at the Scottish Rural Property and Business Association (SRPBA).
The draft LUS focuses on three key objectives: successful land-based businesses contributing to the economy; flourishing natural environments; and vibrant sustainable communities in urban and rural areas. These objectives sit underneath the overriding purpose of encouraging sustainable economic growth, and McCreery believes that if that is crucial then more clarity will be needed to help achieve this.
“If they are saying sustainable economic growth is our core objective, then this should support that and they need to make it a clear direction of travel. In trying to please everyone, trying to be all things to all people, it risks not being of any use to anyone, at the end of the day.” She adds: “It will take clear decision making at government level, which again, in the run up to an election, government is not going to want to produce something which is unpopular with any particular sector, so it’s very difficult.” The draft LUS states that using land for multiple benefits – for example, encouraging biodiversity to flourish on land that is also used for economic purposes – should be encouraged.
The need to ensure derelict or vacant land is put to use is outlined and it also states the importance of understanding how ecosystems interact and what threats and opportunities are presented by climate change.
The strategy does not just consider how businesses might work better with the land, it also suggests how urban and rural communities might reconnect with it as well. Examples such as the increasingly popular farmers’ markets held in cities and towns across Scotland are encouraged and there is also a suggestion that land use could be covered in Curriculum for Excellence.
However, a lack of information on how the LUS will interact with the National Planning Framework could potentially cause confusion and likewise, the lack of firm commitments in the strategy is also cause for concern. Vicki Swales, head of land use policy at RSPB and convener of Scottish Environment LINK’s Sustainable Land Use Task Force, says that she hopes the committee evidence session will be able to draw attention to these worries.
“We are hopeful that [the committee’s] comments back to the Cabinet Secretary Richard Lochhead will actually make some firm recommendations in terms of ways of strengthening the draft before it’s laid before Parliament,” she says.
“There might be some more concrete actions or at least, some signals as to what might happen next in order to take things forward.
So the timescale is limited but there are lots of existing policies, initiatives and work programmes going on rather than in the context of the draft Land Use Strategy.
“We have strategic documents like an agriculture strategy, a forestry strategy, biodiversity, etc and we have processes like implementation of the water framework directive, river basin management planning system, flood risk management area action groups being set up, so there’s a lot happening but what it needs to do is to tie all that together and also I think prompt, in many cases, the review of other strategies or other policy programmes to say, are these going to help us deliver the objectives we’ve set out in this strategy or not? And I think it should point to some kind of timetable for that to happen.” McCreery argues that a better way to ensure the success of the strategy would be to put business at its heart.
“The environmental aspect of sustainability is pretty well covered through regulation – we have regulation covering all the environmental issues. But we need profitable, successful businesses to be able to deliver the environmental and social benefits – so it’s the old adage that you can’t go green if you’re in the red – it doesn’t make a business any money to create lots of paths to the countryside or to let hedgerows grow or to leave field margins.
They need to be profitable in their own right before they can start doing all of those things,” she says.
Dr Maitland Mackie CBE, chairman of Mackie’s Ice Cream, which has the admirable aim of becoming the greenest business in the world, believes that the strategy as it stands is missing the point. He says that global food shortages in the next decade or so will have an effect world wide and that the strategy could be an opportunity for Scotland to focus efforts on early action.
“We’ll need every square inch of land and space possible to produce food to feed the world,” he says explaining that as gas increases in price, fertiliser will also increase, resulting in increased grain, vegetable and meat prices.
Mackie says that care should be taken as to how much production land is given over to forestry and housing. “The unfortunate thing about housing is it’s often focused on good production land and I think that one ought to be careful about that.” He adds that encouraging new-build houses to be built with gardens would also be a step in the right direction as this would give people the means to grow their own food.
“At the small end, I think gardens and allotments are important and whatever is a wee focus point on the business of food security and individual things to do – you know, if people are unemployed, to go and work on an allotment isn’t a bad idea.” With the final draft of the strategy expected early in the New Year meaning there is a tight timescale for changes to be made, Swales has floated the idea of creating a broad-ranging stakeholder forum which would meet once or twice a year to look at progress. This could be a means of ensuring the LUS is not allowed to be left on the shelf.
“The draft as it stands and the environmental impact assessment doesn’t set out very clear monitoring procedures for the strategy so how do we judge whether it’s having an impact or not? And our fear would be that we would simply end up in five years’ time we would suddenly be faced with ‘oh, we’ve got to revise the strategy’, which is a bit late in the day,” she says.
“I think the idea of having a forum in which government had to set out and update what steps had been taken, what actions actually happened and have an opportunity for discussion and debate and for those stakeholders to show what, in many cases, they’re doing to help contribute towards more sustainable land use, would be quite constructive.” While there has been a good deal of criticism of the details of the draft strategy, most stakeholders – even those speaking on behalf of businesses – are supportive of the general direction of it.
There is still time for improvement.
Following the committee session, the Scottish Government now knows that if it does not tighten up the LUS, it will not have the desired effect. Environmental organisations are now hoping that this will be taken on board and when the final strategy is published, it will contain clear-cut targets and proposals. But, as McCreery says, in the run up to an election, it is questionable whether the approach of trying to be “all things to all people” will change.