Scotland's rural economy: Q&A with the opposition spokespeople
Holyrood asks the opposition spokespeople for rural affairs in the Scottish Parliament about current issues facing rural areas
How would you reform the CAP payments system?
Peter Chapman, Scottish Conservatives: One word has to be at the heart of any reform of CAP payments: simplification. The top priority must be cutting red tape for farmers by decreasing the complexity of, and time needed to administer, CAP.
I also feel that penalties inflicted on farmers for making genuine, often minor mistakes can be excessively harsh, so I would welcome more realistic, lenient sanctions.
John Finnie, Scottish Greens: Lessons must be learned from the ongoing IT shambles. In the longer-term we need to see an efficient system of farm payments and one that is clearly connected to the delivery of public benefits such as rural jobs, water management, biodiversity and carbon sequestration.
Rhoda Grant, Scottish Labour: The SNP government has not been clear about what the problems are with the computer system they have, therefore it would require to have tried and tested professionals look at the system to make sure it is fit for purpose.
Going forward we need a much simpler payment regime that addresses disadvantage rather than skews payment to the larger enterprises.
Mike Rumbles, Scottish Lib Dems: Our priority needs to be getting remaining payments out of the door and into bank accounts. Liberal Democrats have also called for a compensation scheme for farmers who have faced extra bank charges as a result of the incompetence of the Scottish Government.
In the longer term, we need to work with the industry to build a payments system that delivers payments on time and in full.
The IT system we have at present is not cutting it and it is unclear if it will ever be able to deliver what was promised at the outset. We need to look at alternatives.
How do you balance between promoting the rural economy and protecting the environment?
PC: Promoting the rural economy does not have to be incompatible with protecting the environment. The emphasis has to be on using new technology, particularly in farming, to decrease the impact that we have on the land. This can include using GPS to ensure that fertiliser spreading and chemical spraying is targeted and accurate.
GM crops also hold the potential to produce disease-resistant crops, less dependent on insecticides and fertilisers, so I was disappointed by the Scottish Government’s ban last year.
JF: During the election campaign we proposed a Food, Farming and Health Act. This would provide the balance that is needed. It would connect citizens, farmers, food producers and the wider industry and set a range of targets such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions from food production.
RG: A balance has to be struck, but given population levels and economic activity were much higher in the past without damaging the environment we have scope to ensure we promote economic development.
It is clear that if we do not make efforts to build these economies and repopulate these areas, no one will be available to look after the environment.
Much more environmental damage is done in cities, therefore we need to look at those that cause the damage and mitigate that rather than driving people out of our remote rural communities.
MR: There is always a delicate balance to be struck but a thriving farm sector is absolutely not a bar to protecting our natural heritage and biodiversity.
Farmers know their land best and they have an interest in ensuring that the environment is protected. Getting the balance right is about talking to the industry and campaigners to ensure that everyone has the chance to be heard.
How can you help keep young people from leaving Scotland’s rural communities in search of opportunities elsewhere?
PC: An all-inclusive approach is required to ensure that rural Scotland remains an attractive place for young people to live. This must include providing jobs, affordable housing, educational opportunities and infrastructure, particularly broadband.
To this end, I would like to see Community Broadband Scotland increase by £5m every year and its eligibility extended to businesses, charities and individuals, rather than just communities.
This would help to get broadband to the hardest to reach areas of Scotland, going some way to making rural businesses viable and prosperous enough to create jobs for Scotland’s young people.
JF: By investing in local infrastructure such as public transport and childcare, and by restoring college places and creating jobs in lasting industries.
RG: Young people need opportunities to earn a living and have a career in rural areas if they are to stay. We need to firstly invest in communications, broadband and transport links to make sure they have the same access to education, training and services.
Much of the rural economy is focused on small business and we therefore need to equip young people to join or build these businesses for themselves.
They also need to be able to access a home – house prices in rural areas are often higher than can be afforded by young people. Therefore we need to build more affordable houses, and provide young people with grants and assistance that make building or buying affordable.
MR: Modern broadband and mobile coverage can transform the rural economy. It will enable new and existing businesses to access the basic services they need and open up new markets. We can’t afford for them to be left behind any longer.
Replacing low speeds and blackspots with fast and reliable communications would present a wealth of new opportunities for young people in rural areas.
What should be done to tackle the unique housing and infrastructure challenges faced by rural Scotland?
PC: Planning rules should be flexible enough to ensure rural Scotland’s housing and infrastructure challenges are met. I believe that we should introduce planning system exemptions to allow retiring farmers or new entrants to build a home on agricultural land.
There must be also be an emphasis on bringing back empty properties to use or converting them to be used as affordable housing.
A bigger proportion of grant funding also has to extend beyond registered social landlords to include community and private developers looking to develop new affordable housing.
JF: A radical programme of land reform could transform the prospects for affordable housing in rural communities. Land should be made available at existing use value, rather than inflated with planning permission, and we could modernise the Land Settlement Act of 1919 to create more housing opportunities.
We also support introducing a right to buy in appropriate circumstances for secure agricultural tenants.
RG: It is more difficult to build affordable houses in rural areas therefore grant payments to housing associations should reflect that.
We also need to help young people save for a deposit and make it easier for them to attain a home. We also have problems with the quality of housing stock in remote rural areas, sometimes they are worth less than the cost of insulating them.
We need to look at how we improve quality and insulation to bring homes back into use for young and old alike.
MR: We need new infrastructure that will help us beat our climate change targets, create warmer homes and strengthen our economy.
As well as low carbon transport and digital infrastructure, we need to address the housing crisis by increasing the supply of socially rented and affordable homes.
It is also time for a fresh approach to fuel poverty. It is time for the Scottish Government to admit the statutory target to abolish fuel poverty by this November will be missed. The latest statistics showed no real change.
A third of homes are in fuel poverty and in the hardest hit rural areas it rises to two thirds of households.
That is why we need to establish catch-up zones to deliver warmer homes for remote and island communities which have fallen behind, alongside a Warm Homes Act and firmly establishing improving the energy efficiency of homes as a national infrastructure project.
Does the focus on more devolved power to Scottish islands leave some other parts of rural Scotland at a disadvantage? What would you do for remote parts of the mainland?
PC: I think that it is right that devolution does not stop at Holyrood and that new powers benefit Scottish islands, particularly as the SNP Government’s tendency has been to centralise power.
My party is one of localism and I believe in re-empowering mainland, as well as island communities. Transport infrastructure is crucial in remote areas, which is why I would like to see a greater emphasis placed on community transport.
A start-up transport capital fund should be introduced as initial costs can discourage investment in community transport in remote areas.
JF: Greens want to see an economic development agency for rural areas not covered by Highlands and Islands Enterprise, including the South of Scotland.
We believe technology can ensure even the most remote and rural areas of Scotland can participate in the digital economy, whilst access to services (such as e-healthcare) and participation in public life can also be improved.
And government at all levels could consider rurality impact assessments and allocate resources appropriately.
RG: I do not believe there has been a focus on delivery for islands. There has been a lot of talk but I cannot think of one thing they have received from all the discussion.
Islands clearly have unique boundaries and want to have more say over decision made on their behalf, for example they are more dependent on ferries and flights and need to have a say over how they are delivered – this would not be the case with a mainland area.
However, all communities require to be empowered, the SNP Government have centralised pulling power away from these areas and this needs to be reversed. This goes for Islands and well as remote mainland areas, and indeed the whole of Scotland.
MR: Scotland’s island communities face particular challenges but there is no reason why we cannot see communities on the mainland get many of the same powers that will be transferred to our islands.
The current Scottish Government has centralised the life out of Scotland. Decisions from planning to council spending and enterprise investment are now all routinely taken at the centre of government.
Liberal Democrats have always believed in devolving power to local communities wherever possible. We continue to argue for the reversal of the one-size-fits-all culture and for powers to be returned to communities.
They should be able to benefit from levers such as local taxation and Crown Estate resources. Devolution must not stop at Holyrood.
Should there be more control over who owns Scottish land and how it is used?
PC: I believe that good land use, rather than who owns land, is most important in rural Scotland. I am supportive of transparency of land ownership, but it must be remembered how important outside investment is to rural Scotland.
The Scottish Government is quick to praise outside investment in, for example, infrastructure, but not when it comes to land.
A study by Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) found that 30 per cent of estates surveyed were net contributors, meaning their expenditure was higher than income. This money is more often spent in the locality supporting a range of businesses and jobs.
JF: Scotland’s land should benefit the many and not the few. There should be no secrets about who owns Scotland. We must democratise land and use it for the common good.
RG: Yes – land is an economic driver. Current land use has led to depopulation and the disintegration of the rural economy.
Where communities have taken ownership of their land we see these areas begin to build their economies. Therefore land ownership is incredibly important.
We need to know who owns it to work with them to make sure they are using in the public interest.
MR: The Parliament passed the Land Reform Act in the final week of the last Parliament. It particularly focused on matters such as the need to have transparency about who owns land so that they can be held accountable for its use and so that we can ensure that they pay their fair share of tax.
In light of the revelations in the Panama Papers, this is essential. This legislation should be implemented and a review established by the end of the parliamentary term to consider how it is working and options for further reform. That is the responsible thing to do.
Do we need to do more to promote rural parts of Scotland as visitor destinations?
PC: Tourism holds great potential to help grow the rural economy and to help farmers to diversify, particularly at a time when CAP money is decreasing.
There are certainly lessons to be learned from other countries, such as Italy which has a €1.2 billion agritourism sector and 20,000 registered farm operators.
Scotland’s Go Rural scheme has made a good start in promoting agritourism and I hope the sector will grow in coming years to help cement Scotland’s reputation as a world-renowned tourism destination.
JF: Yes, but that must come with investment to support the tourism sector with skills and training for the workforce, better broadband and mobile connections and reliable, affordable public transport.
The success of the Borders Railway, for example, shows the potential we have.
RG: Absolutely yes, the Highlands and islands of Scotland is one of the most beautiful parts of the world with deeply entrenched cultures and traditions which we should be showcasing to the rest of the world and encouraging people to come to the area, for pleasure, but also to start small businesses. This is true for many rural areas throughout Scotland.
Visitors boost the economy but due to the seasonal nature of tourism we need to make sure that the economy is underpinned by other economic activity. Prioritising rural broadband would go some way to make sure that this happens.
MR: Absolutely. Scotland is lucky to be home to some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. We should be shouting it from the rooftops.
VisitScotland and others have done plenty of good work in this regard but there is always more that we can do.
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