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Country file: What next for the rural economy?

Country file: What next for the rural economy?

The Scottish Government is in the early stages of replacing the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, but in doing so it needs to be aware that the rural economy is made up of much more than just farms

It is fair to say that Brexit has never been massively popular in Scotland but, from the point of view of those living and working in the rural economy at least, it has one significant silver lining: it has given the Scottish Government the opportunity to come up with a bespoke replacement to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

Introduced in part to stabilise food production across the European Union, the CAP has always been problematic, with critics arguing, among other things, that it has led to environmental damage by encouraging large-scale production methods at the same time as favouring the wealthy through a system of subsidies that reward land ownership over crop cultivation.

The CAP was copied into UK legislation as part of the withdrawal from the EU, but the Scottish Government has long insisted that it can offer something better. Indeed, when he introduced a 2019 bill designed to ensure CAP provisions would continue to temporarily operate in Scotland after Brexit, then rural economy secretary Fergus Ewing said the aim was not just to simplify but to improve on those rules.

The farming community has had a long wait to find out exactly what that would mean in practice. It is beginning to get an inkling after the government published two documents in March which, it says, provide “information about how we will support farming and food production in Scotland to become a global leader in sustainable and regenerative agriculture”.

The first of those documents, which outlines the government’s “vision for Scottish agriculture”, notes that a support framework will be put in place so farmers and crofters can deliver “high-quality food production, climate mitigation and adaptation, and nature restoration”. The aim, it says, is to “meet more of our own food needs sustainably and to farm and croft with nature”. Using the phrase of the moment, the document says the government is committed to ensuring a “just transition” for the agricultural sector that maintains jobs, cuts greenhouse gas emissions, streamlines food production and enhances nature.

It may seem like a whole lot of wishful thinking, but in the second of the documents - A National Test Programme to Start Transforming Agriculture in Scotland – the government lays out its twin-track approach to achieving that. The first track, which is already under way, is all about encouraging farmers to take stock of their environmental impact and incentivising them to make improvements. The second will “design, test, improve and standardise the tools, support and process necessary to reward farmers, crofters and land managers for the climate and biodiversity outcomes they deliver”. This will all be formalised into a Scottish agricultural policy by 2026, with a consultation on what that should contain due to launch this summer.

Mairi Gougeon, rural affairs secretary

According to rural affairs secretary Mairi Gougeon, the documents prepare the ground for that legislation while making it clear that the agricultural sector, which is the third biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in Scotland, contributing 18.5 per cent of the total in 2020, must be at the forefront of the fight against climate change. Speaking after the documents were published she said that “farmers, crofters and land managers have a crucial role to play in helping us meet our climate emissions and nature restoration targets”, adding that “producing more of our food more sustainably” would “help make our food system more resilient”.

However, speaking at an event hosted by the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) last month, Claire Taylor, an agricultural columnist at The Herald newspaper, stressed that there is a fine line between policies that encourage farmers to be more environmentally friendly and policies that could encourage them to change careers. The Scottish Greens, whose leaders serve in the current Holyrood administration, are vocal proponents of rewilding and have long made the case for allowing swathes of agricultural land to be “allowed to regenerate into the diverse habitats they were prior to deforestation”. Last year work began on a 30-year rewilding project that will see 500,000 acres of land in the Highlands left to return to nature. The project is being led by Trees for Life along with Rewilding Europe and 20 landowners are taking part.

Yet while the Greens believe rewilding will create economic opportunities for rural areas, Taylor is concerned that the opposite could be true. Noting that “farmers are the lynchpin of the rural economy” because they provide jobs, she stressed that if policies are weighted in such a way that they encourage farmers to close their businesses “it will affect the social fabric of our rural areas”.

“We need a more balanced approach between farmers and forestry,” she said. “If we have blanket forestation [we could] lose a generation of farmers and would no longer have crucial knowledge of the land. We need to be careful of that policy. We don’t want to see people replaced by trees but with rising costs many will take the money to turn their land over to forestry.”

For Dr Leslie Mabon, a lecturer in environmental systems at the Open University who also spoke at the RSE event, that goes for the entire rural community, not just farmers and crofters. Stressing that the rural economy is made up of “wind turbines, people, boats, rockets, not just sheep and farms”, Mabon said there needs to be a recognition that policies that focus too heavily on climate change mitigation are likely to have a disproportionately negative impact on that economy.

“Rural areas in Scotland can offer a lot when it comes to mitigating against the impact of climate change. However, it’s also true that rural communities in Scotland rely quite heavily on natural resources for jobs and for sustaining the local economy,” he says. “[In] the Cromarty Firth they fabricated and maintained oil rigs. That’s starting to disappear now [so] when we talk about a just transition – something the Scottish Government has latched onto – it’s absolutely vital to think what this means for some of the more rural and less urbanised areas that maybe don’t appear on the map. Aberdeen gets a lot of attention but what about the Cromarty Firth or the East Coast of Fife?”

At the same time, Mabon said that, while expecting rural communities to step up in the fight against climate change, more attention needs to be paid to the way those communities are bearing the brunt of the impact of the climate emergency.

“We need evidence-driven responses to a lot of the resilience and climate-change adaptation challenges we face in Scotland,” he said. “We tend to be quite flippant as a country about extreme weather – we’re used to wind and rain […] but the reality is we’re not. If we look at the infrastructure that rural communities rely on it’s spectacularly underprepared. Ferries go off in bad weather. It’s a real challenge for the rural economy but we need an evidence base for what the challenges are and what the solutions might be.”

Yet rather than looking at the challenges in the round, the government is focusing on delivering policies that, while seeking to address one specific challenge faced by rural communities, may actually exacerbate many others. At a time when rural communities are becoming less connected due to disruption on the railways, island communities are becoming isolated due to chaotic ferry provision and tens of thousands of homes and business in the far north are still without superfast broadband due to problems with the roll out of the R100 programme, the government is choosing to prioritise one very specific issue: island depopulation.

The SNP promised in its 2021 election manifesto to launch an ‘Islands Bond’ if it was returned to power, the aim being to address population decline by offering £50,000 each to 100 families to entice them to move to the islands most severely affected. The principle behind the bond, which is expected to launch in the coming weeks, is sound, particularly as it is aimed at the young people and families so many remoter communities have lost. However, while it has proved eye-catching, responses to the government’s consultation on the plan highlight some of the many issues repopulation alone cannot hope to address.  

“Great idea,” said one respondent, “but first offer to those currently trying to stay in the local area before encouraging more to relocate.” “The working young adults of the area are being priced out of the housing market and having to relocate for housing/skilled jobs,” they added. “Once there is an increase in local support, then there could be a consideration for introducing migration to the area.

Another noted that in reality the £5m earmarked for the scheme “is a drop in the ocean for addressing decline of island communities” and that “a simple bribe to get people to stay will not make a long-term difference”. “Depopulation is a symptom of wider problems,” they said. “The main issues identified in Shetland’s outer isles are transport, digital connectivity, lack of employment opportunities and the high cost of living/fuel. A concerted effort to address these, [for example] by constructing fixed transport links and laying fibre optic cables to improve physical and digital connectivity, is the only way for the isles to survive and prosper.”

“Unless combined with other measures (such as affordable energy to address the persistent issue of extreme fuel poverty, fibre-to-the-premises rollout to enable people to work from their island homes without having to leave the islands) this measure is bound to fail,” said another. “What is the point in giving money to a recent graduate to help buying a house, improve their home and so forth, if they then can’t afford to heat it? Or if they have to leave the island when they find out that their dismal digital connectivity does not support working from their island home?”

Another respondent summed up the overall feeling by noting that the idea of an islands bond is “too focused on the symptoms rather than the causes of island population decline”. “Inviting more people to relocate won’t solve the problems as to why people leave, it will just result in a short-term increase in population ultimately resulting in the same issues presenting again in the future,” they said. “The money would be better spent on investing in island economies and jobs, jobs, jobs. Giving young islanders a reason to stay on the island with well paid jobs and the opportunity for future career development on the island would be a much more long-term solution.”

When The Times newspaper reported in May that the first island bond would be “offered in weeks”, Orkney MSP Liam McArthur tweeted that “rather than offering bribes to individuals, which could prove divisive, Scottish ministers should commit to investing in projects that benefit whole island communities, such as new ferries or faster broadband”.

Replacing “island communities” with “rural communities” would not be wide of the mark. 

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