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by Margaret Taylor
21 June 2023
The rural-urban divide: 'Green politicians don’t understand what life in the country is like'

The rural-urban divide: 'Green politicians don’t understand what life in the country is like'

The sun starts to break through the clouds as I leave the A9 and begin wending my way cross country to Aberfeldy. By the time I reach Martin Kennedy’s farm, crossing the Tay at General Wade’s Bridge and passing along the tree-lined avenues that lead to the Edradynate Estate, it is a glorious early summer’s afternoon. Kennedy, who has been president of NFU Scotland for the past two and a half years, occupies one of the holdings on the land, renting a farm directly next door to the one his father began working in the 1940s and which has for the past several decades been tenanted by Kennedy’s brother.

The views from the hilltop situation are spectacular, all lush and bright and verdant, and as we chat on the decking area, birds singing, wasps hovering and lambs frolicking and hollering down below, it is hard to imagine a more green and pleasant place.

But a more green and pleasant place is what farmers like Kennedy are being asked to create. In the post-Brexit world, Scotland is in the process of drawing up its own agricultural legislation, a replacement for the EU’s much-derided Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The Holyrood administration, which has made ambitious UK-beating commitments on reaching net zero in record time, is keen to strut its eco-friendly stuff and the curators of the land are being told they have to step up. It is, Kennedy says, a huge ask.

Martin Kennedy, NFU Scotland

“If you look at the landscape around here you can see birds – you can hear them – and there’s livestock all around,” he says.

“We’ve got a biodiverse environment and it’s all been built by agriculture. People forget that. People think they need to protect the environment, but we’ve been doing that for generations. There are areas where we need to do more and the industry is up for the challenge, but there needs to be a recognition that agriculture is already providing such a lot.”

The CAP, which was introduced in the sixties, sought to stabilise food production across the EU by, among other things, paying subsidies to farmers for producing food in a way that ensures the countryside is also looked after responsibly. It was copied into UK legislation following Brexit, but the Scottish Government vowed to design something better to replace it north of the border. An agriculture bill has been promised for the latter half of this year, with the Scottish Government saying it will make Scotland “a global leader in sustainable and regenerative agriculture”. Talk of rewilding and biodiversity abounds and the government has made it clear that farmers will be rewarded via subsidies for meeting eco-friendly targets. What is less clear is whether existing payments will be enhanced for those that step up or reduced for those that do not.

Uncertainty aside, one of the main problems, says Kennedy, is that for those working on the land it feels like policies are being made by urban-dwelling politicians who care less about rural realities than they do about green-inspired ideologies, something that has been exacerbated by the 2021 agreement that brought the Scottish Greens into government.

“Green politicians don’t understand what life in the country is like,” he says, pointing to efforts by Green ministers to completely outlaw the use of pesticides and promote the translocation of beavers from Tayside – where the previously extinct animals were reintroduced in 2009 – to other parts of Scotland as examples of policies that satisfy one set of concerns while failing to take account of any others.    

“Glyphosate is a chemical weedkiller that’s always been under threat but using it has allowed us to stop ploughing. We haven’t ploughed for 11 years now and that keeps the soil carbon in the ground,” Kennedy says.

“Beavers can cause a lot of damage when their dams cause floods – there was an instance in 2020 where there was £25,000 of damage done to crops of potatoes and carrots. There was an agreement from [former SNP environment minister] Roseanna Cunningham that beavers would be protected but you couldn’t take them from one area to another, but that’s all changed since the Bute House Agreement. The Greens are so blinded that they don’t see the bigger picture. They don’t take a holistic approach.”

Bally Philp, Scottish Creel Fishermen's Association
On the other side of the country, Bally Philp is on a boat on Loch Kishorn when we catch up by phone. The loch, a northern branch of Loch Carron, which edges the Inner Sound, is one of the north-west highlands’ most picturesque, with the Applecross mountains serving as a northern backdrop and the islands of the Inner Hebrides just a short sail away to the west. Normally, Philp – whose view today is marred by the presence of a large oil rig, a reminder that Kishorn Port and Dry Dock is a key employer in the area – would be out fishing, laying the creels that will bring in his catch of langoustine, scampi and prawns. Today he is doing something else, assisting a team from the Scottish Entanglement Alliance in its work on whale entanglement mitigation.

“There’s potentially an issue between creels and whales,” he explains. “They’ve been known to become entangled and we’re looking at ways to reduce that.  It’s an interesting job – far more leisurely than fishing. We’ve got some scientists on board. I head the Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation [SCFF] and we’re trying to do more and more around the science. We need the evidence to back up that creel fishing is environmentally friendly. We want to put our money where our mouth is.”

The federation has been involved with the alliance for several years, with Philp, who is not just the SCFF’s national co-ordinator but also a highly articulate spokesman for the industry it represents, saying its members take issues such as biodiversity and climate change very seriously.

He has been speaking out on behalf of the industry quite a bit recently, what with the Scottish Government pushing ahead with plans to introduce Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) around Scotland’s coastline. The aim is to “protect important marine ecosystems” by designating “at least 10 per cent” of Scottish waters as highly protected, meaning there will be strict limits on the amount of fishing that can go on there. The proposal is still at a draft stage – one consultation closed in April and another is yet to launch – but Philp says that communication around what might eventually be put in place – and where – has been so poor that fishing communities fear for their futures. It feels, he says, like Edinburgh-based bureaucrats have drawn up something that includes all the biodiverse upsides without stopping to consider any of the human downsides.

“We need these environmental designations – we have to evolve and we have to make more room for environmental management measures, there’s no doubt about that,” he says.

“The problem is that when people from cities and towns or the Central Belt dream up these things, often they do it with blinkers on. They have to find 10 per cent of the sea to make HPMAs so they’ve asked themselves where they will find that, but what you have to ask yourself is whether there’s even room for 10 per cent without there being adverse effects. I understand that there needs to be HPMAs – they are solving a problem and there will be benefits, but those benefits won’t come until further down the line. The benefits won’t accrue to the people who are being affected – it’s not the same individual humans or businesses that we’re imposing a problem on that are going to benefit. That frustrates people, that’s where the divide shows itself.”

For some politicians the situation has been a gift. Fergus Ewing, the backbench thorn in the SNP government’s side, quite literally tore up the consultation document during an HPMA debate, branding it a “notice of execution” and warning that the proposal would “haunt” the Holyrood administration, should it be allowed to go ahead. Ewing’s SNP comrades Alasdair Allan and Kate Forbes, who both represent constituencies that include large swathes of coastline, have also made their disdain clear, while Labour, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats have variously expressed their concern about HPMAs and called for them to be scrapped.

For Philp this is somewhat disingenuous – all the parties did, after all, commit to bringing HPMAs forward in their last manifestos – but he says there is a sense that the process is being rushed through purely because of the SNP’s deal with the Greens and as a result is failing to consider anything other than the ecological impact of the plan, and all from the comfort of the urban Central Belt.

“If you look at parliamentary debates you would think this was just down to the Bute House Agreement, but the Tories and Labour did propose HPMAs too,” he says. “What the Bute House Agreement has done is force the government’s hand in doing it sooner rather than later. It is the catalyst that has forced the SNP to do it now rather than later or never.”

Farms and fishing boats do not operate in isolation, with whole communities dependent on their success for their own prosperity. For Euan Jardine, leader of Scottish Borders Council, while proposed fishing and farming legislation could have a huge impact on areas like the one he represents, they are not the only measures that appear to have been drawn up to suit urban populations without giving due regard to rural ones. Rules around Airbnb-style short-term lets that are designed to take the pressure off the Edinburgh property market, and various plans aimed at getting drivers out of cars and into public transport, are just two examples, he says.

“Requiring licences for short-term lets is fine in the city where there are numerous hotels but we have hardly any hotels,” he says. “Sixty per cent of people offering short-term lets in the area might just pull out because they feel it’s not worthwhile. We want tourists to come here. A tourist tax is great for Edinburgh and Glasgow but why would we want to tax people that want to come here?

“Transport, poverty, loneliness and isolation are also so significant here – isolation is one of my main priorities. In the city you can jump on a bus, but if you’re in a hamlet in the middle of nowhere you do feel isolated and you do have to take your car because rural transport doesn’t work. If you want to get from Eyemouth to Stranraer via public transport it’ll take 14 hours. That’s a significant challenge – you could get half-way across the world in that time. In Edinburgh, £2 takes you anywhere but here, if you want to go to Peebles, it’s £14 return. How can people on low incomes pay for that? It’s a low-income area as well.”

We have lots of issues with care and those decisions are best made by people who live here and understand it. We have concerns that things like that just happen to us

With just 17 per cent of Scotland’s people living in rural areas it is perhaps unsurprising that policymaking typically focuses on the needs and wants of urban populations. Yet as 98 per cent of the country’s land mass is rural, that creates the potential for foisting something that works for small pockets of the country on to people spread across huge geographical areas.

In the far north of Scotland the leader of Shetland Islands Council, Emma Macdonald, says even well-meaning proposals like the National Care Service – which has been delayed after coming in for intense criticism during the SNP leadership race – might make sense for Scottish cities, but won’t work in areas like the one she represents.

“Our care model is very, very different,” she says. “We know because we have issues with recruiting staff that we have to pay more than on the mainland – starting pay for carers here is £13 an hour – so the proposal where they are looking at a £10.50 starting salary won’t make a difference. How is that making things better? We have lots of issues with care and those decisions are best made by people who live here and understand it. We have concerns that things like that just happen to us.”

Macdonald’s colleague Emma Perring, who leads a project aimed at helping local families facing deprivation, notes that when blanket policies are altered with local communities in mind positive outcomes can be achieved. The Scottish Government’s Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD), which is used by bodies such as the NHS to help direct services, is a case in point. Though it is useful in cities, which are more likely to be punctuated by areas of wealth and areas of deprivation, in rural communities struggling families can and do live next door to millionaires. Trying to direct services with reference to a tool that doesn’t recognise that nuance was not working for Shetland so the local authority has been working with the Scottish Government’s islands team to come up with an alternative.

“Data that was used to determine socio-economic issues, such as child poverty and employment rates, always puts Shetland in a very favourable light – it says we are similar to East Renfrewshire and East Dunbartonshire without many issues,” Perring says.

“That’s always been a challenge because anybody working in the local authority knows that there are issues, but it was a challenge to know how to articulate them. It’s always a challenge that policymaking tends to be done in the Central Belt, but the Scottish Government realised that and has tried to involve local people more.”

Research carried out by the local authority identified that the Minimum Income Standard is a more appropriate measure for remoter communities than the SIMD and that, while people in Shetland might earn more than those in equivalent jobs on the mainland, the fact that islanders need freezers in case boats carrying fresh food don’t run and also have to heat their homes all year round means disposable income is tight.

“When you look at those figures that flips us,” Perring says. “We have lower poverty rates than Scotland as a whole but in terms of acceptable standards of living, far fewer people in Shetland have that.” The Scottish Government is, Macdonald says, “really listening” to that message and has made additional funds available to the islands as a direct result of the work the council has done.

For Philp, the hope is that such nuance can be incorporated when full proposals for HPMAs are finally brought forward and that, rather than reducing fishable waters by 10 per cent and leaving the same number of boats to fight it out for rest, the fleet can be similarly helped to reduce in size too.

Fishermen are being expected to pay for the fact that we’ve changed our minds about how we should manage the sea

“I’m not saying that HPMAs are a bad thing but that the government is just expecting us to suck it up,” he says. “They will have to decommission some boats. I’d much prefer we had a healthy fishing industry and no one needed compensating for anything but that’s not where we’re starting from. We do need HPMAs but it’s unreasonable for the government to say fishermen should just do it. Fishermen are being expected to pay for the fact that we’ve changed our minds about how we should manage the sea. I’m not complaining about that, just that we’re being expected to pay for it.” 

Kennedy, meanwhile, says he remains optimistic that an agricultural policy that recognises that farmers are running businesses that need to be profitable in order to both survive and meet their climate obligations will be brought forward. Balance will be key, he says, adding: “You can’t be green if you are in the red.” 

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