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Delivering a Good Food Nation is 'real political challenge'

Richard Lochhead launched the Good Food Nation plan last week

Delivering a Good Food Nation is 'real political challenge'

“We’re tired,” admits Scottish chef and restauranteur Nick Nairn when asked about the impact of rising costs on his business. “How much more of a pummeling can we take? At the moment, that is possibly the toughest thing of the lot. Every day there’s something else, some other utilities bill or insurance increase or materials increase – it just feels utterly relentless.”

Nairn’s frustration is palpable. The impact of inflation on business costs coming immediately off the back of the Covid-19 pandemic has left Scottish hospitality in dire straits. The restaurants, pubs and cafes that just about made it through repeated lockdowns have little or no reserves left to cope with higher bills and falling patronage as households tighten their belts.

Yet despite its multi-billion-pound contribution to the economy, neither the UK nor Scottish government has yet heeded the industry’s calls for help. The former is being urged to cut VAT for hospitality, as has recently been done in Ireland. The Scottish Government, meanwhile, has been asked to bring in non-domestic rates relief for the sector, something already in place elsewhere in the UK.

Not doing so, Nairn says, risks the sector “going backwards” on progress made to establish Scotland as a leader in food and drink. “In my lifetime as a restaurateur, we’ve worked really hard to change the culinary landscape of Scotland from not great when I started cooking back in the 80s, to really vibrant and fantastic. We have amazing chefs, amazing restaurants, amazing food… We’re in danger of losing that. We’re in danger of going back to the way it was, and you will end up with a high street of chains.”

He says it feels like both governments are burying their heads in the sand, but the consequences of doing nothing are grave. “Here is the last chance saloon. We need somebody to pick up the calls and recognise this – even if we felt that there were people in government vocally on side, that would be a start.”

Perhaps with the advent of the Good Food Nation plan – slightly delayed but finally published last week – those calls will be answered. At its most basic, the plan aims to put Scotland on the path to producing healthier, more sustainable, locally sourced food, while also maintaining and growing the food and drink sector. Indeed, one of the plan’s six main ambitions is to see a sector that “is prosperous, diverse, innovative,” and recognises it is “vital to national and local economic and social wellbeing”. It also specifically mentions wanting to “maximise the potential” of hospitality and food tourism.

We really welcome that local engagement and the development of local supply chains and getting more local sourcing

Yet when asked about concrete support for hospitality, ministers place the blame at Westminster’s feet. Small business minister Richard Lochhead, who launched the plan in Glasgow last week, said the problems facing Nairn and others were a result of “the UK Government and its economic mismanagement”.

Even in areas for which the Scottish Government is wholly responsible – for example, business rates – Lochhead (who incidentally first proposed the idea of becoming a Good Food Nation when he was rural secretary in 2009) bats the problem back to London. “We are doing what we can to help the hospitality industry,” he says. “Clearly, we had a very difficult budget from the UK Government, but with the support we’re giving towards rates, for instance, we estimate 63 per cent of hospitality businesses are not paying any rates whatsoever.

“I know that’s not of huge comfort to the remaining businesses who are not getting as much support as they were calling for. That’s because we had such a difficult budget from the UK Government. As has been well documented by the finance secretary and first minister, the Scottish Government is paying for inflationary increases for pay deals and other costs – we were facing a very difficult choice in terms of what we deliver with public services versus responding to the calls from various parts of the business sector.”

Indeed, there is some concern from those who have long campaigned for Scotland to become a Good Food Nation that the current fiscal situation will limit what the government does. Professor Mary Brennan, chair of the Scottish Food Coalition, tells Holyrood: “It’s influencing and shaping and maybe constraining a lot of the discussions around this, but it’s also not going away. The creativity and innovation is going to be around what we can achieve with what we have… Are there win-wins that we can deliver through the same envelope, whether that’s human resource, whether that’s financial resource or whether that’s systems resource?”

And that’s not just in reference to government, either. While the Good Food Nation Act – passed by MSPs in 2022 – received cross-sector support, Brennan is concerned that the “different priorities” of all those involved in food, from farm to fork, may lead to a dilution of ambition.

“I’m still very nervous or still very aware of the power and the influence that the food industry and the business sector have in a lot of these discussions,” she says. “The danger is it gets siloed, and [the Good Food Nation Act] loses its capacity to deliver the multiple outcomes, to deliver the multiple wins. It loses the impact that is envisioned.”

I’m still very nervous or still very aware of the power and the influence that the food industry

She points to the Agriculture and Rural Communities Bill – currently undergoing its initial round of scrutiny at Holyrood – as one example. “The Agriculture and Rural Communities Bill must be inextricably linked and coherent with the Good Food Nation Act. I’m not wholly convinced that it’s going to be.

“The bill is attempting to support local communities, influence social and economic outcomes, and support those small and medium sized businesses, whether they’re farms through to food processors and food manufacturers. But I think there is a danger that it gets siloed.”

Yet others argue the bill will deliver exactly what the Good Food Nation Act was aiming for. National Farmers Union of Scotland vice-president Alasdair Macnab says: “We’re very supportive of the Agriculture and Rural Communities Bill as set out in its draft form at the minute. There are one or two very minor tweaks to some of the things in there, which is the absolute detail, but the framework that’s set out – it’s an enabling bill.

“The ambitions of the [Scottish Government’s strategy document] Vision for Agriculture will be delivered by the bill. We are committed to working with the government to get this bill over the line as is. It delivers for the industry, and needs to go forward to deliver a secure, sustainable and profitable agricultural industry – and play a strong part in delivering the Good Food Nation Act and ambitions.”

Macnab, who runs Kildun Farm in Dingwall, believes the fundamentals of the Good Food Nation do not run counter to what farmers and crofters want. Broadly speaking, the plan is about “delivering high farming standards, enhancing animal health and welfare, more localised supply chains, enhancing producer value and cutting food miles,” he says. “These things are that we subscribe to very strongly. In delivering that, we are working closely with government. You hear the word co-design being used – we’re sitting and looking at how these things are delivered to best effect.”

The major opportunity, he says, is getting a “Scotland-first” policy into public sector procurement. This will be particularly important when it comes to the local Good Food Nation plans, which will be required from every local authority and health board in Scotland. Macnab says: “We really welcome that local engagement and the development of local supply chains and getting more local sourcing in the public sector so we can showcase what we can produce and shorten those supply chains.”

There is a culture within the Scottish Government of driving forward new legislation and not adequately reflecting on how successful either existing legislation or newly instigated legislation has been

But much like hospitality, the farming sector is also struggling with rising costs and labour shortages. Macnab says that if the ambitions of the Good Food Nation are to be realised – and he is optimistic that there is “a lot of opportunity to create a resilient and vibrant industry” – then government must put cash into the sector.

“It’s important that we have a commitment of funding so farmers have the confidence to invest,” he says. “That commitment has to be multi-annual and ring-fenced for two reasons. One, so we know what’s going to happen going forward. And two, it gives us confidence to do it.

“We’ve been asked to do more and more in terms of things which are symbiotic to farming, like nature enhancement, biodiversity, climate change mitigation. These are all things that we can deliver and the Good Food Nation Act is a key part of all this, for producing local, sustainable, nutritious food.”

Despite Macnab’s optimism, it’s clear there will inevitably be competing priorities. The Good Food Nation plan’s six “high-level aspirations” cover everything from diet and health to net zero, through to business needs.

Professor Jules Griffin, director of the Rowett Institute, agrees these drivers can “pull in different directions”. “The initial bill was quite broad brush. There’s going to be a lot of devil in the detail.”

He points to the balance between nutrition and sustainability as one example. “There are certain foods that are very nutritious for us, but wouldn’t be described as sustainable… We know that certain parts of the population will have more of a requirement for iron in their diet and there’s evidence of vitamin D deficiency. So you then get into situations where, from a sustainability point of view, we know that we have to reduce our red meat intake – but for certain parts of the population, you want to get them to maintain their red meat intake.”

For Brennan, one of the major hurdles to Scotland becoming a Good Food Nation is this sort of “policy incoherence” and she acknowledges that it will require government to make difficult choices. “Scotland has come a huge way, and this is innovative, groundbreaking legislation. It is brave and it was hard-fought and also very well scrutinised. It’s not perfect but it has provided us with a framework and a mechanism and oversight that I think is the foundation for going forward.

“But there is, and continues to be, substantive policy incoherence and legislative incoherence. There is a culture within the Scottish Government of driving forward new legislation and not adequately reflecting on how successful either existing legislation or newly instigated legislation has been and what the relationship between legislation and policy mechanisms are.”

Much of the first plan, therefore, is about pulling all the different threads together. What that means in practice is that there is very little in the way of new targets, and instead it looks to map out how existing policies and targets come together to deliver on each of its six outcomes. It says there is “limited scope” for new ones due to a lack of consistent definitions, insufficient data, concerns about affordability, and the interaction between reserved and devolved powers.

Brennan continues: “There is a real political challenge or tensions between how we balance economic growth, sustainability of businesses, of local authorities, of organisations while also delivering environmental, social and public health outcomes.

“There is a lack of political will to be tougher about what it is we expect of business going forward – and that doesn’t need to mean that it happens tomorrow, there has to be a period of transition, that period does have to be just. But there’s justice on all sides. There’s justice for biodiversity, for animal welfare, for communities and households that are suffering from chronic health inequalities, as well as justice for businesses.

“While there was overarching political agreement around the value of the Good Food Nation Act, a lot of the challenges are going to come in in how we implement that.”

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