Richard Lochhead: New role in government is "the best fit"
Apart from a two-year period on the back benches, Richard Lochhead has been a mainstay in the SNP government since 2007. Having worked firstly under Alex Salmond as first minister and then Nicola Sturgeon, he has been responsible for key areas such as rural affairs, the environment, food and drink, science, higher education, and just transition. Last month, the newly elected first minister, Humza Yousaf, asked Lochhead to take on the role of Minister for Small Business, Innovation and Trade.
A member of the SNP old guard, he tells me his new post is the “best fit for me” and that it will allow him to play a role in growing the Scottish economy, something he is eager to focus on.
And his enthusiasm is palpable. Before I can even hit the record button, he’s out of the blocks telling me about the technology sector, “a revolution bubbling under the surface” as he puts it.
The new tsar of tourism, technology, small business, innovation, and trade has a particularly large and varied portfolio, and Lochhead, who is a keen cyclist, admits that in the last few weeks he has seen very little of his bike.
“I have been so steeped in this new portfolio; I am just as busy as I was when I was in the cabinet. But it is a very exciting portfolio and is the best fit for me.
“I wanted to play a role in growing Scotland’s economy, and I was lucky enough to be invited to stay within the government.”
A key area that Lochhead wants to build on this summer is the tourism industry – an area of his portfolio that has been greatly affected by the pandemic, but now like every other sector, faces challenges brought on by the cost-of-living crisis and the cost-of-business crisis.
According to VisitScotland, tourism industry revenue shrank by 60 per cent from 2019 to 2020, and it has been clawing its way back to pre-pandemic size since. Acknowledging the challenge, Lochhead says this is what he signed up for. He tells me that he will be spending his summer “getting out and about” engaging with industry and “listening to where we are going now”.
But recovering back to 2019 levels of revenue is just the start of Lochhead’s job. The Scottish Government launched its new vision for tourism 19 days before the first lockdown in March 2020. The plan, Outlook 2030, although hampered by the pandemic initially, aims to make Scotland a world leader in 21st-century tourism.
He explains the strategy: “It focuses on people, places, businesses, and memories. Those four pillars are crucial to how we want to deliver a really good tourism product in Scotland.”
Outlook 2030 places a great deal of emphasis on preserving Scotland for future generations, and one way the government aims to achieve this is through sustainable tourism.
Lochhead explains: “People are becoming more concerned about the footprint left by tourism, and there is a lot of good work happening in Scotland around sustainable tourism.”
He tells me that alongside making tourism more sustainable, there must be improvements made to infrastructure as the growing number of visitors is causing strain on the local infrastructure in some areas of Scotland.
“This was being debated before the pandemic, that we are a victim of our own success in that tourism is becoming so popular and that is putting pressure on certain parts of the country in terms of local infrastructure.
“The Scottish Government did create the Rural Infrastructure Tourism Fund, which has delivered about £18m for projects, whether that be car parks or other infrastructure projects around the country. The issue is important, and we must be a lot more joined up – tourism is not just my baby; it is the responsibility of all ministers across the government to support tourism.”
A way they hope to create more funding for infrastructure improvements is through the Visitor Levy Bill, which was published last month. It aims to give councils the power to apply a levy on stays in overnight accommodation based on a percentage of the accommodation cost. The money raised would be reinvested locally into facilities and services for or used by visitors, enhancing the tourist experience and benefitting local communities and their economies.
Despite the pandemic, it hasn’t been all bad for the tourism industry, particularly for the whisky industry, which is crucial for tourism and the wider economy. Lochhead, who oversaw food and drink from 2007 to 2016, explained that Scotland’s largest export “has continued to break records”. He tells me he used “to boast” that Scotland was exporting 44 bottles a second when he was minister, and “now it is exporting in the low 50s”.
It’s clear that Lochhead is taking the issue of tourism seriously, and while he says there is still work to be done to reach pre-pandemic revenue levels, he tells me “the buzz is returning to tourism in Scotland”.
“The latest figures show that we are now close behind where we were pre-pandemic, that’s the 2022 figures. The feedback that we are getting from 2023 is quite encouraging. I think any of us who are out and about in our local town centres or villages in certain parts of the country can see there are more tourists around, particularly from America.”
Alongside the rebound following a slow couple of years, he says he has been “struck” by the level of investment taking place across the industry.
“On the one hand, it is an industry that has been hit hard by rising input costs through inflation, but I am hearing numerous examples of planned investment, both officially in terms of new hotels investing in Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Inverness predominantly, but also through the growth deals that the Scottish Government is funding across Scotland, they are making tourism a big part of these particular deals which is literally hundreds of millions of pounds separate from private sector investment.”
There is big money in tourism. Last month the Natural & Cultural Heritage Fund, which is led by NatureScot and funded by the European Regional Development Fund pumped £22m into 13 projects across the Highlands and Islands. The schemes range from new visitor centres at Dundreggan and Corrieshalloch Gorge to virtual reality tours of important archaeological sites along the Hebridean Walking Route.
And given he also holds the technology brief, adding a technological layer to tourism is something Lochhead is keen to see. He emphasises how we “need to have a broader look” at some issues that are coming to his attention like the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI).
“We had a look carefully in terms of how that [AI] can help tourism in Scotland; both the experience for visitors, but also for businesses to better cope with labour shortages for instance, while boosting productivity and efficiency.
“I think we need a focus on what tech can do for tourism.”
Throughout our conversation, it becomes more apparent how Lochhead is viewing his wide-ranging brief and how he views many of the issues as being interlinked with each other. After touching on how technology can improve tourism, he moves on to how it can boost economic growth right across the board. Yet, one emerging technology sector that Lochhead admits he did not see coming a few years ago was Scotland’s space industry.
“There are really exciting things happening below the surface of the Scottish economy just now. If you had said to me just a few years ago that my constituency would have a rocket manufacturer I would have thought you had been visiting the local whisky distilleries a bit too often. But here we have Orbex building rockets now ready for vertical launches.
“I was also involved in the turf cutting at Sutherland Spaceport. You have to pinch yourself that these things are happening [in Scotland].”
Development and production of new technologies is an area that Lochhead has identified as being key in growing Scotland’s economy. He mentions Scotland’s involvement in the satellite industry, telling me that “Scotland is producing more satellites than any other nation outside of the US”, and that the small-sized satellites being made in Scotland “are the future” and we should expect to see tens of thousands put in orbit.
I ask Lochhead what he thinks Scotland’s role will be in technology. He tells me that he is currently reading Eric Hobsbawm’s book The Age of Revolution and says that “prominent Scots” played key roles in ‘the lift-off decade’ in the 1780s that began the industrial revolution.
“I am making the comparison with now in the 2020s as the lift-off decade for the technological revolution. A lot of that is happening in Scotland – this is also the lift-off decade for Scotland.
“A lot of these sectors, like photonics, which the man or woman on the street might not know too much about, I think, are going to come to huge prominence in the years ahead.”
It is clear that in the short space of time Lochhead has been in his new role he has had to learn a lot, and quickly.
He tells me: “It’s like doing a degree every week. Within days of being appointed, I was speaking to the quantum computing community in Scotland. It is just such an eye-opener.
“I am learning a lot, and it has been quite a steep learning curve, although having been in my previous job as minister for higher education that gave me an insight into what’s happening at the universities, for instance. But I never knew half of what was happening.”
Lochhead says recently he has been “feeling like Old Father Time” after reflecting on coming into government in 2007 with colleagues.
“I’ve served all of the governments, under all of the first ministers. So, I can safely say they’re all pretty different personalities, but all clearly have their strengths. And we have to move with the times, I mean even what the parliament’s discussing, what the government’s discussing has changed dramatically since we came into power in 2007, and that’s for good reasons and not-so-good reasons.
“There are lots of new exciting new agendas like the energy transition and decarbonising Scotland, which we have massive potential to become one of the most successful decarbonised economies in the world. Maybe some of the more negative reasons are the toxic environment in politics just now, which is not as comfortable as one would like.”
For 20 years he has been used to his party’s well-known stability. But with the recent turbulence the party has faced, Lochhead says it has been a “difficult” period.
“I would be lying if I said it wasn’t difficult. [The leadership election] was the first contest of that nature for over 20 years, and the party was a bit shell-shocked by what happened. It was a fiercely fought contest and was a bit of a roller coaster.
“Both emotionally and politically I found it quite challenging to see what was happening. I had seen the Labour party go through this a few times, I have seen the Tory party go through it a lot of times, and maybe you are a little bit smug watching all the shenanigans and not believing what you are hearing and seeing.
“But then of course we had a hotly contested leadership contest of our own and I think that a bit of humble pie had to be eaten as you watch your party having such heated debates and going through what we went through. But now it is onwards and upwards because all parties go through this, it just so happens that we hadn’t done it for over 20 years.”