Putting a former farmer in charge, the Conservatives’ environment brief seems a perfect match
Few MSPs possess the depth of knowledge on rural issues of the Conservatives’ spokesman on Environment and Climate Change, Jamie McGrigor. Before becoming an MSP in 1999, McGrigor was both a livestock and trout farmer, and remains involved in a variety of countryside organisations.
McGrigor’s background leaves him well placed to speak out on two of the salient issues facing Scotland’s rural economy over the coming months: impending reform of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) and Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
“It hasn’t worked,” is McGrigor’s clear assessment of the CFP. “It’s a matter of great regret that governments in the 70s…both Labour and Conservative governments…handed over fisheries to the Common Fisheries Policy,” he adds. The result has been that “the Scottish fishing fleet has taken more pain than any other fishing fleet in Europe”.
The policy, oft criticised for the unequal allocation of quotas and for failing to tackle over fishing, is now set for a major overhaul, with EU Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Maria Damanaki, promising a decentralised and less rigid approach. “It’s a grave mistake to try and micromanage,” says McGrigor, adding, “fish don’t follow boundaries, they swim about where they like.” The need to secure a better deal for Scotland’s fishing fleet is paramount; McGrigor explains that for every job in the fishing industry there are four on land, and the sector is ten times as important as to the rest of the UK. The solution, he says, is to put greater trust in the years of expertise accrued by Scottish fishermen and allow local voices a greater say in policymaking.
He continues: “We need a long-term strategy which actually takes into account what not just the scientists say but also what the fisherman say.
“What I do know is that in the fishing industry in Scotland the needs of the people on the North West coast, and the North coast, and the North East coast are all different – a onesize- fits-all approach will not work.” McGrigor adds the Scottish industry has done more than any other to try to mitigate against the problems of over fishing and discards (“the real bugbear of the whole thing”). He is not convinced the Scottish Government is capable of delivering the necessary changes. He continues: “At the moment we’re having a big difficulty with Iceland and the Faroes about over-fishing by those countries for mackerel, which could really hit our pelagic fish industry very hard, and I think our Scottish Government should really be getting their teeth in to that.
“We keep hearing from the SNP that Richard Lochhead is the absolute bees knees on fisheries…I’m not sure that he’s actually coming up with anything new.” On the CAP, McGrigor says the current economic climate means “our farmers are likely to see a reduction in overall funding,” and believes it is vital any reform maintains the “direct link with food production”. While there is a common perception that the CAP has worked against British interests, he adds that the UK has benefited from billions of pounds via the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher. McGrigor says that Caroline Spelman and Richard Lochhead, UK and Scottish environment ministers respectively, while not obvious partners, can deliver a similarly beneficial deal through the current reform process. He continues: “We’ve got to look at joining forces in the United Kingdom to produce the best options. And these options must be flexible; it’s quite interesting that the Common Agricultural Policy last time round produced four different payment systems in the United Kingdom, although there was only one spokesman, which shows how flexible it can be.” Domestically, McGrigor recognises that public funding to support agriculture is also likely to shrink, but is confident the sector can cope.
The danger, he warns, is that the measures designed to make sure rural land use is married to environmental concerns are pared back to the extent that damaging practices are allowed to creep back in. “I think everybody has got to be prepared to take a cut at the moment,” he says.
“Now farmers are very good at tightening their belts, especially family farmers, but you can’t ask them to tighten them too much (or) people will cut corners.
“We want farmers to be able to help cut emissions, and they can do that with the help of agri-environment schemes.” On the other current issue of renewables, McGrigor says Conservatives continue to support the SNP Government’s ambitious plans for the industry, but believes the rhetoric has outmatched the reality. “I think you’ve got to be honest with people, with companies who are trying to follow the lead of the Scottish Government on this,” he says. “They [the SNP] realise that they’ve been talking too much and not doing enough. There’s a huge rush at the moment, for example, to get a big offshore wind farm in the Moray Firth, which I think is 600 turbines – bigger than anything we’ve seen so far.” For such a major project, McGrigor adds, “they should really do pilot studies,” but the urgency of the 2020 renewables target precludes it. McGrigor says both on and offshore projects should “go ahead wherever possible…provided they don’t impact too much on people’s homes or tourism”. It is a view not shared by his entire party. Conservative MEP Struan Stevenson has been a longstanding and vocal critic, dubbing the creeping growth of wind farms the “renewables rape of Scotland”. McGrigor says Stevenson is “perfectly entitled to that point of view,” but adds that “people have stood at elections on anti-wind farm tickets and never got really far”. McGrigor’s enthusiasm for the development of the renewables sector derives in part from his background in Scotland’s northern, rural areas. The industry is tailormade for a region that must grasp any economic opportunity that comes its way. He continues: “I think this is an opportunity for Scotland, it’s a window – certainly for the Highlands and Islands and I think most of rural Scotland.
“If there’s something in the Highlands – especially in the Highlands – that you can use to make some sort of industry, you cannot turn your back on it. It’s too important for employment and income in those areas.” Scotland, says McGrigor, has missed such opportunities before. In the 1960s Scotland was a world leader in developing hydro power, but allowed itself to fall behind. The lesson of that period should be that “we have to make sure there’s a good enough budget for Scottish universities to do research and development into all these things,” he says. “But we have to do it very quickly, because it’s a race now.” That means striking a balance between developing the renewables projects already in the pipeline and doggedly pursuing the major technological breakthroughs that can improve the performance, efficiency and lower costs that are needed to improve the viability of green energy systems. “The Government must work with [universities] and say: ‘We’ve got to marry research and development with the practicalities of getting our businesses going,’” adds McGrigor.
Finally, McGrigor rules out “an obvious change” to the party’s environmental stance under new leader Ruth Davidson (“a boost to renewable energy in the Conservative Party”).
Despite the relative consensus on renewables, Conservative energy policy continues to differ from the Scottish Government’s plans in a number of areas. The party refuses to rule out nuclear as an option (“you mustn’t ever take nuclear out of the mix,” he says), and renewables development must be underpinned by fossil fuel alternatives; “you have to really have gas stations, in my view,” adds McGrigor. Meanwhile carbon capture and storage technology “could be excellent,” the prohibitive cost means it “may have to be something for the future”.