Interview: Fergus Ewing on what Brexit will mean for Scotland's rural economy

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 29 June 2018 in Inside Politics

Exclusive interview with the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy on aquaculture, Brexit and the future of rural communities

Image credit: Scottish Government

Fergus Ewing recently bought himself a convertible sports car, though he denies he is going through a midlife crisis.

The Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy, in his own words, has “been around the block a bit”, having served in the Scottish Government for more than a decade, first as minister for community safety, then as minister for business energy and tourism, before finding himself being appointed to his current cabinet secretary role in May 2016.

The son of SNP hero Winnie Ewing and the brother of fellow MSP Annabelle – who succeeded him as minister for community safety – it’s hard to think of an SNP politician more heavily steeped in the history of the party than Fergus Ewing.

Yet, despite recently turning “the wrong side of 60”, he denies the purchase of a sports car – an 11-year-old, second-hand BMW 3 series – was in any way connected to his age, with the MSP for Inverness and Nairn even trying to argue that he’s “a bit early for that”.

In fact, he is currently more concerned with learning how to control the roof.

Ewing told Holyrood: “It’s the first time I have driven a convertible and it was a very pleasurable experience. The problem was that I didn’t know how to put the roof back down. Once I found the button and the sunshine permitted the opportunity, it was a great experience.

“I felt very cool there, driving along in my shades, until my ten-year-old daughter disabused me of that notion,” he explained, adding, “I suppose dads just aren’t cool.”

Well, perhaps not, though you can see the motivation for the purchase. After all, with a brief covering the whole of rural Scotland, with a landmass the size of nearly 80,000km, the job involves some travel.

“It’s important to me, in my job, to get involved, to get out and about, working with others in the public and private sectors to generate those opportunities,” Ewing said. “Not just looking at it purely in terms of policy creation, I see the role of cabinet secretaries as about ‘getting in aboot it’, as I would say, by working with business and public sector people to achieve things together.”

Ewing says his focus is on supporting what he calls ‘the four Fs’ – fishing, farming, forestry and field sport, alongside more recent developments in the rural economy, such as tourism, renewables and connectivity.

And with such a wide brief, covering such a wide area, experience does count.

He said: “When I go to the National Economic Forum and I look at the audience, I know about half of them, as people I have already dealt with, and I know some of them from meeting occasionally, so once you have been to as many meetings and events as I have around different topics from the enterprise and business side of things, you do get to know an awful lot of people.

“The success of what you do is based on trust. I’ve always thought that trust is the method of valuing your worth as a politician, and information is the currency. If trust doesn’t exist then it’s not easy to do things, because working together involves candour, it involves feeling that you are working as a team, and I am pleased to say that the work I am doing at the moment, in all aspects, that that is going reasonably well.”

Yet there are a few areas of the brief where relationships appear somewhat fraught. Last year MSPs on the Environment Committee used a report on tackling wildlife crime to warn they were “alarmed at the clear distrust between some stakeholders”, with conservation groups and some landowners at loggerheads over the cause and extent of the problem.

More recently, disputes have developed over the aquaculture sector, after environmental groups, as well as opposition parties, called on Ewing to halt the expansion of fish farming until new regulations aimed at providing greater environmental protection are introduced by SEPA.

With a report from the Scottish Parliament’s Environment Committee warning that fish mortality was at “unacceptable levels” in fish farms, and that the industry would cause “irrecoverable damage” to the marine ecosystem if environmental concerns are not addressed, the National Trust for Scotland then joined the campaign.

But with the sector worth around £600m, and providing nearly 2,500 jobs in Scotland, Ewing appears to be walking a fine line between heeding environmental concern and supporting an industry which provides an economic lifeline for many rural communities.

Ewing explained: “In a sector like aquaculture, which is facing some challenges, I have built up relationships with people across the whole spectrum. [In terms of the challenges the sector faces] I think they are now overcoming or working to overcome [them]. In the fish health framework, which we published recently, we have a clear path ahead and we are taking it very seriously. The industry recognises that the status quo is not an option, but also, we recognise the huge contribution they make to the economy, and to rural communities. Trust underlies all these things, and you need to earn trust, because it takes time to build it up. But once you have been a minister for ten years, hopefully, you have accumulated a lot of credit in the trust bank.”

He adds: “I think we have got a difficult challenge in some areas but we are making a lot of progress. We are demonstrating that some of the issues that have caused concern – the number of sea lice, for example – has already been tackled quite well, the numbers are going down, and have been, broadly, since 2013. The industry has invested an awful lot of money in that. Amoebic gill disease is another challenge – again, tackling that. Looking at the fish spending a lesser time at sea – at the hatchery I opened on Friday, it will enable the smolt to spend more time in the hatchery, before going to sea, which means there is less risk of exposure to disease, so it is more sustainable.

“I could give you more examples, but will we win over absolutely everybody? I doubt it. Some of the people who are against aquaculture, it does seem to be something of a life’s work. I think most people who enjoy, greatly, our high quality salmon, think ‘this is great’. It is nutritious, it has a low carbon footprint, it has omega fatty acids, it is extremely good for your health, it is enjoyable, you can use it in different ways – and trout as well – and most people just want to know they [the industry] are on top of it.

“They are getting on top of it, they are tackling the problems – that is happening. More needs to be done and I am not complacent, changes need to be made in the framework and the regulation. We are all over that case at the moment. Of course, we will consider carefully what the parliament committees say when the second report is out, which should be reasonably soon, but as a politician, I don’t think you should reasonably set yourself the aim of convincing 100 per cent of the population that you are right, because in a democracy, you are likely to be disappointed, if that’s your ambition.”

But with Brexit looming, the Scottish Parliament’s aquaculture report may not be the biggest concern facing those in the aquaculture sector. Like almost every one of Scotland’s food and drink exports, the aquaculture sector is deeply troubled by the potential effect of Brexit on business.

Accessing European markets is critical for exporters, while immigrants from Europe – brought by freedom of movement – make up a huge part of the workforce for businesses engaging in activities ranging from agriculture to tourism.

So how worried is Ewing about the prospect of a hard Brexit and the possibility of losing access to the single market?

“Obviously it’s a worry,” he says. “The ‘Armageddon option’ is not something the Scottish Government dreamed up, it was actually terminology, I believe, deployed by officials providing advice to the UK Government. It is almost incredible that should be the case. Let me say, I haven’t actually seen these documents myself, and I don’t accept things as true until it is demonstrated to me that they are true, but if it is the case that this is the kind of advice the UK Government is setting then goodness me! No food on the shelves within two days of a hard Brexit? What an absolute catastrophe. It’s a scandal, frankly.

“But what we do know is that if there are tariffs or regulatory barriers – ie delays at border inspection posts for the likes of lamb, for which Europe is an extremely important market, salmon, or many other food products, then that is going to be very serious. At the moment, things look pretty tough because of Brexit, with costs like tariffs going up, income likely to go down through lower support, and uncertainty over whether businesses will be able to access the parts of our workforce that come from mainland European Union countries. You know, in abattoirs, that amounts to more than 90 per cent [of the workforce], and how do you run an abattoir without staff? You can’t. Fruit picking, tattie picking, fish processing, off-shore fishing, in all these areas, we rely on people from countries like Poland and Estonia and so on to continue to be able to work here, and to want to work here. If I were them, hearing this subliminal message that they’re not welcome here, well, it’s not particularly pleasant.

“Having said all that, my job is to get the best deal whatever happens. You know in politics, you have to play the cards as they fall, you can’t deal your own hand, that doesn’t work. I am a pragmatist and I do hope that they drop Clause 15, that they recognise a fair deal for the Scottish Parliament, that we can agree some frameworks where appropriate.

“I want to be constructive, I’ve had good relationships with UK ministers over the years and I think that’s the right approach, rather than picking a fight with UK ministers over political matters. Mr Gove? 100 per cent for courtesy, bit of a fail for outcomes, but a very easy chap to deal with.

“But this is an extremely worrying time, because of the total uncertainties surrounding Brexit. The Tory party’s line is that I should somehow come up with a plan, when we don’t know what the budget is, we don’t know whether we will be in the market or out of the market, in the customs union or out of the customs union, even in the European Union or out the European Union. I am kind of baffled as to how anyone expects that you could have a plan worth anything in those circumstances. But as soon as matters become clear, which they will eventually, it will be our job to devise a plan, and of course, we will do that. We are looking very carefully at what needs to be done in the transition period, before Brexit, to provide stability and certainty.”

Clearly rural businesses are as concerned as Ewing, with Scottish Land & Estates, a body representing landowners and rural professionals, warning that businesses need to adapt and find new ways of working if they are to succeed in difficult conditions.

But, the risk posed by Brexit aside, what does Ewing see as potential areas of growth for the rural economy over the next few years?

He told Holyrood: “Well, if you have a business that is well run, that is productive and reasonably efficient, and you are providing a product which is popular, then across the range of rural businesses, there are opportunities. So Scotch beef, Scotch lamb, Scotch potatoes, soft fruit, our arable sector – once you speak to farmers, you become aware of the incredible legacy of centuries of knowledge and experience. They know what they are doing, and the best ones are very, very good.

“In fishing, the mood is buoyant. There were new boats ordered – some of them £25 million worth – the catching opportunity has gone up in recent years, and lots of money has been made. We do want to see more progress made on landing fish in Scotland and increasing the capacity and profitability of our onshore processing sector.

“Forestry is going through a very confident period. It’s growing, and so much so that we are going to hit our target, I believe, next year of 10,000 hectares [of newly planted trees]. So there is lot more opportunity there, because our land mass is 18 per cent coverage, while in Scandinavian countries, it is two or three times as much.

“But we want to see the various pillars of the rural economy co-exist, and not threaten each other but work together to complement each other. So sheep and trees can be very well combined. I want to continue the work the Forestry Commission is doing to encourage farmers to have a stand of trees to provide a shelter belt for flood alleviation or a diverse income. I would also like to see a flexing of planning in the countryside, so we can do more in the countryside.

“We need more houses in the countryside, because we need more people to live in the countryside. One of our flagship commitments is that by the end of 2021, that every home business in Scotland will have access to superfast broadband. That’s ambitious but it is deliverable. Our Reach 100 programme has a budget of £600 million and that’s the largest for any single broadband project, ever, in the UK. That’s extraordinary, really, when you think of Scotland’s size.

“We have a team, we have a plan, we are in procurement, which will come to conclusion early next year, and then we will get on with it. The really interesting question is, when people in rural Scotland are digitally empowered, then think of the new opportunities. At the moment, there are people who might want to live in rural Scotland but can’t because they use their brain and they need access to the internet. They think ‘I’d love to go and live in Lewis, or Orkney, or Shetland, or Dumfries and Galloway, or wherever, but I can’t, because I can’t use my brain to make my living’. That’s all gone. The internet was the death of distance, but it could also be the birth of opportunity for rural life. In a sense, it might blur some of the distinctions between rural and urban over time.

“Medium-sized companies, of a certain type, are suddenly able to do their business, not just in towns and cities, but in relatively remote locations. I actually think that becomes game-changing for rural areas. It’s difficult for us not be conservative, with a small ‘c’, and think, how different will things be in 20, 30, 40 years’ time? I think they will be incredibly different. The main driver of that will be better connectivity.” 

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