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05 September 2014
Rural tensions

Rural tensions

As the Tories’ dramatic Westminster summer reshuffles saw Owen Paterson given his marching orders, Richard Lochhead took to Twitter.

The Scottish Environment Secretary’s comments on his UK opposite number said it all about the at-time strained relationship north and south of the border.

“Here we go again, now have to get to know fifth Defra Secretary of State since I’ve been in post with no doubt [the] same old policies against Scotland’s interests,” he tweeted.

It was a common story of tension between the Scottish and UK parliaments and claims of priorities heading in different directions and nowhere was it more obvious than in the debate over the Common Agricultural Policy.

Farming remains one of the most important sectors in Scotland – especially with the growing global stature of the nation’s food and drink – and the deal sets out policy on agriculture for the next seven years.

While the Scottish version of the CAP includes help for new entrants into farming and measures to tackle ‘slipper farming’, where subsidies are given out to inactive farms, there was frustration that the proportion of funds coming to Scotland were lower than elsewhere in Europe.

Lochhead said efforts “were plagued by UK policies at odds with Scotland” throughout.

“The big disappointment was we went into these negotiations with one of the lowest farming budgets in Europe and after Owen Paterson refused to lift a finger to argue for a better share we actually came out with the lowest budget in the whole of Europe. UK ministers were unwilling to go in there and bat for Scotland.”

He claims that with Paterson now out in favour of Liz Truss, he now has to bring the new minister “up to speed” on Scotland.

“The Scottish Government, and indeed the industry, devote a huge amount of energy to Defra ministers on the unique challenges and opportunities in Scottish farming and food – so every time a new face arrives on the scene we have to start from scratch,” he says.

“I’ve not had the opportunity to speak directly to Liz Truss and understand what her plans are for agriculture, but her views will of course be important, because even though farming is devolved in many respects to the Scottish Parliament many of the big decisions remain to be taken at EU level – where the UK is the negotiator.”

There was cross-party support on many aspects of the debate over the new CAP, not least that extra subsidy should be diverted to Scottish farms, but the final deal saw less money transferred into pillar two of the CAP, which is centred more on rural development than on subsidising individual farmers, than other parts of the UK.

Lochhead describes the decisions on this policy as some of the toughest he has had to make, but insists he believes he got the right balance between supporting food production, tackling inactive farms and supporting wider environmental goals.

“Given the backdrop which we had in Scotland, where not only do we have the lowest farming budget, we also have the lowest rural development budget which is also part of the same policy. It did leave many tough decisions about how we implement the policy in Scotland and use the budget available.

“You can’t please all the people all the time, but my feedback so far is we got the balance just about right given the tough circumstances.”

Lochhead says it has been a hectic year, with a deal reached on the next Common Fisheries Policy, which included a historic ban on discards.

He acknowledges it doesn’t go far enough. There are still questions over how Scottish fleets will deal with mixed catches without falling foul of quotas or a ban on throwing catches back into the water, but he says he is pleased there is finally progress on tackling what has been “a millstone around the neck of seafood and fishing sectors for decades.”

He adds: “Time will tell to what extent this action makes a difference to the red tape and sometimes bizarre regulations our fishermen sometimes have to contend with.

“I can recall when I was first appointed to this post, speaking to other ministers about how we needed to take action on fishery discards which was an absolute scandal and just being met with blank faces. It was also not a priority for the European Commission at the time. 

“I am very pleased that a few years on member states came together and agreed to tackle discards.”

Alongside these changes for the fishing industry is further regulation on the marine environment and Lochhead has announced 30 new Marine Protected Areas, meaning 20 per cent of Scotland’s waters is now under some sort of designation or protection – with further work on preservation of seabirds and other sea life in the offing.

It is another area where the Moray MSP believes Scotland has taken a different approach to Westminster.

“A few years ago I took a decision, I did not want to follow the example of south of the border where ministers got themselves in hot water by simply plucking a figure from thin air in terms of percentages of seas to be covered by designations.

“It was my approach to always work from bottom up using science and having all sectors involved in dialogues from day one – I think that has got us to a much better place in Scotland.”
Scotland has set itself ambitious climate change targets and it will be Lochhead, not Paul Wheelhouse, the Environment and Climate Change Minister, who will chair the new sub-committee on climate change that was announced after the third emissions targets in a row was missed.

“[He] is doing a fantastic job on a day-to-day basis, but a cabinet sub-committee is as it says on the tin. Cabinet secretaries will be expected to attend, but ministers will be part of the process as well.”

Although not part of Lochhead’s brief, energy policy is a central part of ensuring that Scotland can meet its climate change targets – making the country, as he puts it “a beacon of environmentalism” but while the Government is committed to renewable energy, the issue of unconventional oil and gas exploration has not been completely ruled out.

The parliament voted against a total ban on fracking, and this summer the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change announced the licensing round for exploration, including the Midland Valley in Scotland.

Lochhead though says the Government’s approach, with the up-to-date Scottish Planning Policy including buffer zones for areas of special interest and densely populated areas, is protecting the public interest.

“Any unconventional gas or new energy sources that come on the agenda,” he says, “will always be viewed by the Scottish Government through the prism of sustainability and in the context of absolutely protecting Scotland’s environment.”

Underpinning all of this though, inevitably, is the subject of the independence debate. Rather than being a distraction to rural affairs issues, Lochhead claims there is a growing feeling in rural Scotland that the referendum is of huge significance to daily lives.

“Many of these issues are devolved, but scratch the surface of just about any one of them and many of the big decisions are still taken by the Westminster Government and often these decisions are at odds with Scotland’s priorities.

“It is not just in terms of traditional industries such as fishing, farming, forestry and our food sector but also in terms of connectivity, broadband, mobile phone receptions the cost of parcel deliveries, fuel costs or heating costs, all of which are crucial issues to the future wellbeing of rural Scotland.” 

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