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Supporting hand: Q&A with Mairi Gougeon

Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands, Mairi Gougeon. Credit: Scottish Government

Supporting hand: Q&A with Mairi Gougeon

Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Mairi Gougeon, talks to Holyrood about the challenges facing Scotland’s farming and rural communities

 

The war in Ukraine is having major knock-on effects in terms of global shortages in food, what can we do in Scotland to become more self-sufficient in terms of what we produce and what we eat?

The truly terrible events in Ukraine and the resulting western sanctions on Russia are, rightly, changing the way the world does business.

For countries across the globe, food security is becoming a much more pressing concern and in Scotland we are no different. Over the last two years, our food and drink sectors have experienced a series of shocks in terms of disrupted supply chains and new barriers to trade through COVID and Brexit.  While immediate supplies of food are secure, food and drink producers are facing hugely challenging increases in energy bills and price rises across the board, as a result of the global economic situation.

That is why, in March, I established the Food Security and Supply Taskforce jointly with industry to better understand the potential impact of disruption to the food supply chain in Scotland, how industry and government might work together to manage and mitigate those, and be alert to the resulting impact on the cost of food products.

The taskforce is considering these issues and will report in June, recommending actions that can be taken by business, the Scottish and UK Governments to mitigate the challenges.

More generally, Scotland has a thriving food production sector and our farmers and crofters are at the heart of that. We remain committed to supporting farmers and crofters to produce more of our food more sustainably in a way that maintains, and enhances, nature. Despite these recent challenges, we must not scale back our efforts to tackle the climate crisis - which will ultimately support our long-term food security.

 

This is a particularly challenging time for farmers. How are you supporting?

Given the sharp rise in wholesale energy costs in recent months, I am acutely aware that households and businesses across Scotland – including farmers – are facing a hugely challenging increase in their bills.

This is compounding the challenging operating environment caused by the hard Brexit imposed on Scotland by the UK Government, which has inflicted significant and lasting damage on our world class food and drink industries, rural and coastal communities. We have repeatedly highlighted the issue of labour and skills shortages and the impacts on the food and drink sector with the UK Government and this needs to be taken seriously.

The Scottish Government is using all powers and resources available to us to support people in Scotland from the cost of living crisis. We will not remove direct payments, which provides certainty to the industry, and we have committed to maintaining basic payments at current levels for the duration of this Parliament, having provided over £400 million of support to date. Maintaining support provides vital stability and certainty for businesses in this uncertain time.

We are also monitoring the impacts of energy prices and other input costs on agriculture, fisheries and food sectors. I have set up the Food Security and Supply Taskforce jointly with industry to monitor, identify and respond to any potential disruption to food security and supply.

The Farm Advisory Service (FAS) also offers up to £1,000 of specialist one-to-one advice for farm businesses, this includes specialist advice on resilience planning. In addition to this there are a series of FAS events that provide advice on a range of relevant topics including making the most of organic manures and composts and improving nitrogen use efficiency.

I know for some sectors, particularly pig producers, the last year has been particularly challenging. Pig producers have been affected by the temporary closure of the abattoir at Brechin last year, and subsequent suspension of its China export licence.

That is why they will receive more financial support and I announced in May that the Pig Producers Hardship Support Scheme is to be extended for a second and final time.

The scheme will compensate eligible pig producers directly for the £7.50 reduction in price they have been paid per pig by QPP Brechin between 1 October and 31 December 2021. It also includes half of the price deductions per pig from QPP Brechin for April 2021, which were not covered by the scheme previously. We know that this funding has been a lifeline for them and I would encourage all eligible producers to submit their applications and benefit from this additional financial support.

Ultimately though, powers relating to the energy markets remain reserved and Scottish Ministers have repeatedly called for the UK Government to urgently take further, tangible actions  - including a reduction in VAT, targeted support for those on low incomes and four-nations discussions to develop an effective response to the energy bill increases.

 

The UK government’s recently published its food strategy for England ignores many of the recommendations made to it by Henry Dimbleby around tackling both a health and an environmental crisis, where is Scotland on this?

Everyone in Scotland should have access to healthy, nutritious food. Our ambition is that Scotland will be “a Good Food Nation” where people from every walk of life take pride and pleasure in, and benefit from, the food they produce, buy, cook, serve, and eat each day.

Our approach with the Good Food Nation Bill is to underpin in law the work we are already doing across the Scottish Government to make Scotland a Good Food Nation.

The Bill places duties on Scottish Ministers and certain public authorities to produce plans of their policies in relation to food and set out what they will do to make those plans real. The plans will also have to set out the main outcomes to be achieved in relation to food-related issues, the policies needed to do this and the measures we will use to assess progress.

Food policy cuts across all aspects of our lives and our Good Food Nation Bill will lead the way in providing an over-arching framework for clear, consistent and coherent future Scottish food policy.

I have been working with colleagues across the Chamber as the Bill passes through Parliament and – as part of that – will be supporting amendments to the Bill to establish a Food Commission that provide oversight and scrutiny of the implementation of the good food nation plans. I am confident that setting up a statutory Food Commission will strengthen the Good Food Nation Bill and provide further impetus on Scotland’s journey to being a Good Food Nation.

 

Given we live in a country so rich in natural resources and produce such wonderful food, how do you feel about the rise in food bank use?

In Scotland we’re blessed with a fantastic array of local produce, but we know that not everyone has access to that produce we have to offer.

It is shameful that – in a country as rich as ours - the UK Government’s austerity policies have pushed so many people in the UK into using food banks. We need to end the need for food banks as a primary response to food insecurity. That is why the Scottish Government has taken action to prevent poverty and promote cash-first responses to hardship, so that people have sufficient income to access food that meets their needs and preferences.

Last August we published our first ever draft local food strategy, which sets out the wealth of actions we are taking to improve access to local food, including launching the “Scotland Brings so much to the Table” campaign to drive increased sales and awareness of Scottish produce, and the Food for Life Programme, which now operates across 18 local authorities in Scotland, supporting the provision of more locally sourced, healthier food being served in schools.

 

The agriculture sector remains the third biggest contributor for greenhouse emissions, how are you helping the sector?

Our vision - published in March this year - is for Scotland to become a global leader in sustainable and regenerative farming. There are already a lot of farmers and crofters in Scotland who are moving this way.

To support that vision we’re rolling a National Test Programme this year, supported by £51 million of Scottish Government funding.

The National Test Programme will be a twin track approach. In the first track, Preparing for Sustainable Farming, every farm in Scotland will be supported and encouraged to undertake baseline measures over the next few years that will start with a Carbon Audit and soil testing  for their individual farm business. These can both help businesses understand how they can reduce emissions, but importantly also how they can improve efficiencies and reduce costs.  With the second track, Testing Actions for Sustainable Farming, we’ll be working with a focused group of farmers and crofters from across Scottish agriculture to design and test how we will measure and reward sustainable farming practices in the future.

I have also established the Agriculture Reform Implementation Oversight Board (which I co-chair with the NFUS) to support the design of a new agricultural support system to replace the Common Agricultural Policy, with a consultation this year to inform the introduction of a Scottish Agriculture Bill in 2023.

Our intention is that Scotland's future agriculture support regime from 2025 onwards will be one that delivers high quality food production, climate mitigation and adaptation, and nature restoration. High quality, nutritious food locally and sustainably produced is key to our wellbeing – in economic, environmental, social and health terms. We will support and work with farmers and crofters to meet more of our own food needs sustainably and to farm and croft with nature.

But this isn’t all we are doing. Funds for farmers and crofters, such as the Agri-Environment Climate scheme and the Sustainable Agriculture Capital Grants Scheme, are already supporting farmers, crofters and landowners to adapt to climate change, reduce their emissions and become more sustainable.

We are also providing advice and support through the Farm Advisory Services and Farming for a Better Climate and we’re developing the Agriculture, Biodiversity and Climate Change Network, a new network for farmers and crofters, to highlight and share actions that are being taken to tackle climate change and lower emissions.

 

A lack of good quality, affordable housing is an issue particularly prevalent in rural areas, are you concerned about the numbers of holiday homes in areas of Scotland where local people are being priced out and what can you do to address that?

In my regular discussions with rural and island communities, I know how much of an important issue this is. Good quality, affordable housing is essential to help attract and retain people in Scotland’s remote and rural communities.

That is why the Scottish Government’s ambitious housing programme to deliver 110,000 affordable homes by 2032 includes a commitment for at least 10% to be in remote, rural and island communities. This builds on our investment in the last Parliament which delivered more than 6,000 affordable homes in rural and island communities. We have also committed to developing a Remote, Rural & Islands Housing action plan to meet the housing needs of, and retain and attract people to, those communities to support the delivery of our ambitions

In regards to second homes, we recognise that concentrations of second homes can affect community sustainability wherever it occurs. This is why we have taken action to introduce a short-term let licensing scheme to regulate second homes used for secondary letting, and ensured that local authorities have powers to vary council tax discount on second homes. In addition, we have also increased the Additional Dwelling Supplement from 3% to 4% through the Land and Buildings Transaction tax for any additional home of £40,000 or over.

 

Connectivity is always a big issue for the rural economy, the targets to deliver broadband to 100 per cent of Scotland by the end of 2021, have been revised a few times with new targets now set for various areas of Scotland, is this happening fast enough for you and will those targets slip?

Getting connected is vital for rural areas. It helps communities keep in touch, work remotely and access services online, as well as promoting greater regional business productivity.

Scotland has some of the most challenging locations anywhere in Europe for providing telecommunications infrastructure, yet we are determined to deliver access to superfast broadband to every premises in the country.

Despite responsibility for telecoms being reserved to the UK Government, we are still continuing to make substantial investments in Scotland’s digital infrastructure.

Our Reaching 100% (R100) commitment was achieved thanks to the £600 million R100 contracts, our R100 Scottish Broadband Voucher Scheme and continued commercial coverage.

For those who will not benefit from the R100 contracts or commercial build, the R100 Scottish Broadband Voucher Scheme - offering vouchers worth up to £5,000 - will ensure they have support to secure a superfast broadband connection.

Through the Scottish 4G Infill programme, we are investing in future-proofed infrastructure to improve rural 4G mobile coverage, whilst working collaboratively with wider mobile initiatives to ensure maximum impact.

 

There is a growing disquiet about the so-called ‘green lairds’ with large corporate organisations buying up Scotland to plant trees to offset their own carbon footprint, is this something to be concerned about?

I very much understand people’s concerns and this is something the government is taking very seriously.

There is no doubt that private investment in Scotland’s natural capital is going to be critical if we are to deliver our world leading ambitions on addressing climate change and biodiversity loss.

But necessary private investment in natural capital must be responsible and provide wider social and environmental benefit, including for local communities. Investors in Scotland’s natural capital should share this country’s values.

That is why we have published a set of Interim Principles, which detail the Scottish Government’s ambitions and expectations for responsible private investment in natural capital, for communities, investors, land owners, land managers, public bodies and other market stakeholders. Their publication makes Scotland the first country in the UK to set out its ambitions for the natural capital market in this way.

These principles will help us to focus investment in the right types of natural capital in the right places. Such as in nature-based solutions, like peatland restoration and woodland creation, which bring benefits for the environment, the economy and society as a whole.

 

Clearly the whole delay in the delivery of new ferries has shone a spotlight on transport difficulties for islanders. What is your message to those people frustrated by the delays?

Having confidence in ferry services can impact upon people’s decision on whether to live and work on the islands, and impacts upon the sustainability of the island communities themselves. These human impacts are at the heart of Scottish Ministers’ commitment to continued investment in ferry services across Scotland.

During any disruptions CalMac will prioritise sailings to ensure delivery of essential supplies and export of island products, supporting island and remote economies.

We continue to charge CalMac Ferries Ltd. and Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd. with seeking potential second hand tonnage to improve operational resilience on the Clyde and Hebrides ferry routes. The previous charters of the MV Arrow and recent purchase of the MV Utne (now MV Loch Frisa) are evidence of this ongoing commitment to improve and support the existing fleet in this way. We have also recently awarded the contract to build two new ferries for the Islay routes.

The Scottish Government has invested around £2bn in our ferry services since 2007. We have long acknowledged the need to address delays in ferry infrastructure, which is why we have committed to investing a further £580 million in the Infrastructure Investment Plan.

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