The lack of clarity around the Brexit process is without doubt problematic. Brexit was never going to be easy, but the various political power struggles that are playing out at the moment definitely add another dimension to it.
Undaunted however, many organisations with an interest in how rural Scotland looks and operates are producing position papers and blueprints for the future, ourselves included. We launched “A New Direction for Land Management” at the end of March following an extensive member consultation and feedback process at the end of 2016. Since then Scottish Environment LINK, Scottish Wildlife Trust, NFU Scotland and various others have published their thoughts.
As the very brief comparison table below shows, on the surface of it, there appears to be a reasonable amount of consensus on the key elements of a rural land use policy going forward.
However, to explore the extent to which there really is consensus, Scottish Land & Estates working with Scottish Environment LINK organised a roundtable event in mid-June. The opportunity to meet was welcomed by those who took part and we ran the day under Chatham House Rules.
While there are some similarities in terms of the language used and the challenges and opportunities, it was also apparent on the day that there are differences in terms of the relative prioritisation of different objectives and the direction and pace of policy change sought.
Perhaps the most insightful comment came from a participant who highlighted that there is little or no joint-ownership of problems. Those around the table could have been split into “tribes” with each tribe looking for government policy to answer a different question. Accepting that the reality is more nuanced, broadly speaking the environmental NGOs are looking for answers to “how do we achieve sustainable development?”, the landowners and farmers on the whole are asking “how do we make a living?”, the land reformers are asking “how do we change the pattern of ownership?”, and the recreational and landscape lobby “how do we prevent undesirable landscape change?”.
This differing of objectives is the real challenge of creating future countryside policy and government have the unenviable task of eventually reconciling it. It was much easier 70 years ago at the end of WW2 when the vast majority of the population could agree that the countryside was largely for food production and increasing productive capacity, while keep the cost of food down, was the single most important objective. Today there are multiple objectives (see UN Sustainable Development Goals) and they don’t all fit together easily. Today we are in a world of in some cases being able to achieve win-wins, for example precision agriculture leading to targeted pesticide application, leading to cost reductions and less likelihood to run-off, but also in other instances needing to acknowledge that there are trade-offs and choices. For example, a grain crop is a monoculture, so biodiversity objectives are not going to be delivered in the same space as it grows. Of course you can have biodiversity in field margins and hedgerows, but not in the same space as the crop. It is a choice, and often the only logical one at the moment, if your living depends on the land.
The good news is there was some appetite from those organisations around the table to meet again and do more to get everyone to take three steps closer together. Let’s not pretend this is easy, but let’s also hope that where there is a will, there is a way.