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Will John Swinney’s new-look Scottish Government give rural Scotland its place?

Leadhills, South Lanarkshire, is the second highest village in Scotland. But the countryside is no monolith | Alamy

Will John Swinney’s new-look Scottish Government give rural Scotland its place?

It was something of a backhanded welcome. The Scottish Crofting Federation (SCF), responding to news that the Swinney era had begun, said the new first minister had “the opportunity to correct previous errors” and “bring back the drive towards a better, fairer rural Scotland”.

The clear implication was that the SNP-led administration had been mucking up the countryside. And, indeed, there had been growing complaints in the latter years of the Nicola Sturgeon administration and the entirety of Humza Yousaf’s 13-month tenure that ministers no longer ‘got’ rural. That was thanks not only to a catalogue of policies that provoked fury from Highlands and Islands communities – Highly-Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs), the Deposit Return Scheme (DRS), cuts to the housing budget and the ban on wood-burning stoves in new builds, which is now under review – but also to the predominance in the ministerial team of MSPs serving the central belt and Tayside.

In one of his first acts of government, Swinney – who has vowed to be an FM “for all of Scotland” – brought in Skye, Lochaber, and Badenoch MSP Kate Forbes as his deputy first minister in a move that sent a strong signal to Scotland’s crofters, farmers and fishers. It was Forbes, after all, who as an SNP leadership candidate pledged to scrap the HPMAs that were so unpopular in coastal communities. It was Forbes, too, who highlighted the difficulties the DRS would pose to Scotland’s villages and rural businesses and who has pressed for the dualling of the A9 that serves so many of Scotland’s northern parts. All of those stances put her into conflict with the SNP’s former partners in government, the Scottish Greens, and her elevation to cabinet was a signal of just how different Swinney’s minority administration might prove to be.

Indeed, the highlander has joined a team that includes a former farmer – Jim Fairlie – in its ranks, with other colleagues – such as Maree Todd, MSP for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross, Moray MSP Richard Lochhead, Argyll and Bute politician Jenni Minto and Swinney himself – representing areas of rurality.

But nothing has been proven yet. And with an imminent general election bringing the potential of a change of government at Westminster, there remains great concern in rural Scotland about what the future holds, according to SCF head Donna Smith. “With Kate Forbes in the position she’s in, she should bring a greater understanding of the rural situation into the cabinet,” Smith says. “Some of the recent decisions by government seem to have been trying to make life more difficult in rural areas rather than supporting them.

The rural vote will probably be quite key

“The rural vote will probably be quite key,” she says of the general election. “Across rural areas there’s a huge amount of nervousness about the future. Any rural area that relies on agriculture is nervous already and a change of government throws more uncertainty in there. I’ll be interested to see what parties do about rural areas because there’s a real lack of confidence in government at both the Scottish and UK sides. For island communities, there is a lot to sort out. They’ve got a bit of confidence-building to try and do.”

The ban on wood-burning stoves in new builds – introduced under Green co-leader Patrick Harvie during his tenure as zero carbon buildings minister – was “ridiculous” and “really does show a lack of understanding about what life is really like in our rural communities”, Smith says. And she says there are concerns, too, about the potential impact of the Agriculture and Rural Communities Bill currently going through parliament on crofters and other small producers due to the increase in red tape it could bring, and about the crofting bill which is expected to be brought before MSPs. Beyond that, she fears that while many policy areas interact to have a disproportionate impact on out-of-town areas, policymakers don’t always see that or realise the way the issues interconnect. 

“Our experience would be that things are still treated in silos,” she says. “Ferries impact everything, the cost-of-living impacts everything, housing impacts everything. They are all connected but I doubt there’s much joined-up thinking going on.”

At Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), Dr Jane Atterton says that while there are problems to be addressed on housing, healthcare and more, there is also reason for optimism. Atterton, the manager of the college’s Rural Policy Centre, says the holding of an urban-centric perspective has been a “longstanding criticism of government policymakers of any political party”. Perhaps that’s unsurprising. Despite 98 per cent of Scotland’s land mass being classified as rural, these areas are home to just 17 per cent of the population. And in the least accessible parts, where the sense of being overlooked by decision-makers can be greatest, the total population share is just six per cent. While certain key issues predominate across areas – housing, healthcare, employment, infrastructure – Atterton cautions against any simple concept of what ‘rural’ really means. 

“A tourist might come to Scotland with that image of very remote rural – mountains, really rugged, no people,” she says. “There’s a tendency for policymakers to treat rural as homogenous and that’s not the case at all. The challenges of access, of infrastructure, of the cost-of-living crisis and all of these issues are shared by people in rural locations but for different reasons. The diversity of rural Scotland is huge.”

With that in mind, the Scottish Government made a commitment in late 2022 to apply a “rural lens” to projects funded as part of its National Strategy for Economic Transformation. That decision was made by Forbes, prior to her post-leadership-run move to the backbenches, and Mairi Gougeon, who has held ministerial responsibility for rural affairs under various titles since 2018. “That was something quite new,” says Atterton. “The approach has always been mainstreaming; this encourages the policymaker to think about rural right from the start.” 

While Atterton says she would “struggle to find a country that was doing it really well”, the rural-proofing of policies is on the table in Canada, England and in Northern Ireland, through its Rural Needs Act, which has been in place since 2016.

There's a cost issue in rural Scotland

Scotland’s imposition of new wood-burning stove restrictions – which, in the words of climate action minister Gillian Martin, raised “issues of inflexibility” – is a “really good example of where the rural implications of a policy were not well thought-through”, she goes on, and though consultation did take place there is now a “sense of frustration amongst communities” that this is not substantive. “It can be hard to see how their views are being taken into account and there’s not much feedback to say, ‘we listened and we acted’, or ‘we listened but we decided to do this, and this is why we did it’.”

At a strategy level, there is plenty happening. Yousaf’s government committed to producing a Rural Delivery Plan and a Remote, Rural and Island Housing Action Plan by 2026 and a new National Islands Plan will be developed next year, with a £5m package just announced to tackle energy and infrastructure issues on the islands. But there is a sense of frustration that more hasn’t been done before now.

Atterton was one of the authors of the Scottish Government-funded Rural and Islands: 2023 report, which documented a profound imbalance in the challenges faced by the countryside, with “very remote inland areas” and islands experiencing slow population growth, the expansion of vacant and second home ownership and a long-term shrinking of the economic base, while “accessible parts” see rapid population growth, leading to increased housing development and pressure on local services. None of this, she says, should come as a surprise to government. And while she sees “potential for changing policy direction” under the current cabinet, the fiscal environment has an impact on her optimism.

“At the end of the day, the government is facing really tight financial pressures. There’s a cost issue in rural Scotland. We’ve been talking to people in some of the island communities about delivery of housing or community development. The cost of everything is high. I think there’s huge opportunity for rural Scotland, whether that is in peatland restoration, tree planting, renewable energy, changes in agriculture. There’s so much potential there for Scotland to be key to delivering a just transition, but it needs to be supported to happen.”

Meanwhile, the SCF has concerns around a raft of proposed measures from the Land Reform Bill, which it says lacks ambition and is “ill-suited to tackle existing land injustices or to strengthening rural communities”, to the Agriculture and Rural Communities Bill, which it claims “continues to privilege large-scale industrial farming corporations and wealthy private landowners”. The latter, which seeks to bring in reforms to farming and food production, passed stage one in March and Gougeon has said Scotland will “transition to a different way of stewarding the land and producing food” in a manner that is “just” and will bring the sector and its communities along with the government.

I've got real concerns

But Smith is less sure and says there is a lack of understanding about issues like common grazing, a practice which sees the same designated areas of land used by multiple livestock owners. “It’s affected by the agriculture bill, the crofting bill which we expected to be brought in this parliament, and the green finance agenda. We were asking and asking and asking the government where they were with it and they said different teams were working on it. We asked, ‘well, are they speaking to each other?’ They said no, not at the moment. 

“They talk quite a lot about a just transition agenda and having thriving rural communities, but I’ve got real concerns about where some of the Agriculture and Rural Communities Bill is going, largely because a lot of decisions that have been made there are about large producers. Small producers have a huge amount of benefit they can give to the country. Keeping people in rural communities, that happens because of things like crofting, so if you make it very difficult for people you start to transform how that whole community looks.”

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