In Scotland today we stand at a crossroads in terms of rural policy. There are a number of decisions and debates that are coming together to make this a pivotal moment that will shape rural areas for decades to come. Whatever happens—whether we leave the EU, become a completely independent country or become an independent country within the EU—there is a need for a much more strategic vision and public debate about where Scottish rural policy should be heading in the future.
This debate cannot wait until we have clarity on Brexit negotiations or independence. Collectively we need to be thinking about the future of rural policy now. With this in mind, Scottish Land & Estates has recently published a new paper entitled A new direction for Scottish land management. We hope that this is a constructive contribution and that it kick-starts a broader discussion about the future of farm, forestry and wide land management policy. Here I want to flag up some of the key issues from our perspective.
It seems clear to us that rural and agricultural support policy needs to change. While we believe that there will be a continued need for public investment in land-based businesses and rural areas, we believe that defending the status quo is not an option. Land management currently receives large amounts of public money and at a time of increased pressure on public budgets and public services it strikes us that land managers will need to come up with the strongest possible arguments in order to justify ongoing public investment. Land managers will have to more clearly demonstrate what public investment in farming and land management delivers to society as a whole.
Clearly there is a critical national interest in maintaining a viable farming industry and our food production capacity, and this does represent an important argument for continued support to some degree, but farmers should be able to make a return through the market rather than being dependent on public support. Scottish Land & Estates therefore believes that the strongest justification for ongoing support revolves around the wider suite of goods and services that land managers deliver to society. We are supportive of long-term moves to redesign rural policy so that support to land managers is related more to the extent to which they deliver public goods such as enhanced biodiversity, flooding alleviation, climate change mitigation and so on.
We do, however, have to start from where we are. And where we are is not such a good place. Figures from the Scottish Government suggest that there is a very high level of dependency on public financial support within farming and figures from SRUC suggest that many businesses struggle to be profitable. Enhancing the profitability of Scottish farming has to be a top priority.
While we do want to see a move towards a greater emphasis on public goods, we believe that we can’t just flick a switch and immediately re-orientate support for farming and land management. We are very aware of the potential for making decisions that inflict a great deal of pain on rural businesses and so we believe that we need a measured transition to our desired end point, not drastic change. It will be vital to remember when we talk about changing policy frameworks relating to farming and rural businesses that we are talking about people’s jobs, livelihoods and communities. This is not an academic exercise; jobs, homes and communities are at stake.
So in broad terms, Scottish Land & Estates recognises the need and believes we have an opportunity, to change policy frameworks relating to land management, but at the same time believes that a great deal of care is needed to avoid damaging our land-based businesses. We need to work to enhance the profitability of these land-based businesses and support them in a process of change. This needs government to set clear priorities and bring all interests together to achieve our goals.
This document is our first step in what we hope will be a constructive debate. In the context of the range of policy choices that lie before us this debate could turn into a battle for the future of the countryside with different ‘sides’ fighting it out to see whose ideas about our rural future win out. But if we are to deal with the challenges and make the most of the opportunities we need a constructive, forward-thinking and intelligent debate where all the different interests come together to work in the best interests of Scotland as a whole.
In the coming months Scottish Land & Estates hopes to move on to look in greater detail at possible delivery mechanisms and to do so in partnership with others across the land management sector. Scottish Land & Estates will strive to make a positive and pragmatic contribution in what will be the most important decision making process to affect rural Scotland for decades to come.
Andrew Midgley, Research and Projects Manager