TOWARDS A DEVELOPMENT STRATEGY FOR RURAL SCOTLAND

TOWARDS A DEVELOPMENT STRATEGY FOR RURAL SCOTLAND

TOWARDS A DEVELOPMENT STRATEGY FOR RURAL SCOTLAND

INTRODUCTION

The Royal Society of Edinburgh is pleased to respond to the Scottish Office with comments on its discussion paper "Towards a Development Strategy for Rural Scotland". The RSE is Scotland’s premier learned society, comprising Fellows elected on the basis of their distinction, from the full range of academic disciplines, and from industry, commerce and the professions. This response has been compiled with the assistance of a number of Fellows with direct experience of conservation and development issues.

The new Government’s commitment to an integrated approach to the economic, social and environmental needs of our rural areas is to be commended. The flavour of this document, with its commitment to people within a context of sustainable development, as outlined in the Foreword, is therefore to be welcomed.

The paper shows evidence of some perceptive thought and awareness of the main issues - National Parks, EU structural funds, the reform of the CAP, fisheries policy, housing, provision of services, etc. However, because it is essentially a consultation document, setting out the main issues on which action is needed and views are sought, it inevitably treats these issues in rather general terms. Some crucial decisions will have to be taken on most of these issues but possible options are not set out in the paper. For example, the probable reduction of subsidies for agriculture in the uplands might provide a new initiative for community-based agro-forestry with field sports, recreation and enhanced biodiversity.

There are also some surprising omissions. For example, nothing is said about forestry, (although it is a major land use in rural areas) or about the reduction in numbers of red deer as a major issue in the Highlands and Galloway. Although there is something about entrepreneurship and the role of Scottish Enterprise, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and the LECs, there is little on manufacturing and tourism. For example, the development of crafts, which are something of a success story in Scotland and were much supported by HIDB with Highland Craftpoint, do not get a mention. The paper thus gives the impression of being the product of SOAEFD but without adequate input from other Scottish Office Departments or agencies.

The balance may be tilted rather too far towards "development" with too little regard paid to the fact that the environment and natural heritage are resources of value in their own right and also of vital importance for the economic health of local communities. It is questionable whether the uplands can be sustainably developed in the economic sense without a major shift of objectives from extractive to restorative management. It would be helpful if the document also explicitly indicated that there are some areas where the national and international interest demands that conservation has priority. We must guard against simply equating "protecting the countryside" with maintaining Scotland’s beauty. This overlooks the aspects of nature conservation and biodiversity which often, though not always, underpin landscape value, and which may also require active management.

This response endeavours to answer the questions set out in Section 4 and then offers some general comments on issues covered in Sections 1-3 which are not addressed in these questions.

ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS (SECTION 4)

1. Increasing local community involvement (para 40)

Truly sustainable rural development has to be a "bottom-up", community-led process in which decisions come mainly from local residents but it should also be clearly acknowledged that in a region of such high environmental quality as rural Scotland there are national and international values to be taken into account. In practice, short or medium term decisions taken by local interests tend to undervalue longer term environmental considerations, perhaps because the familiar beauty of the landscape is not always appreciated by those on the spot and opportunities for local employment are seen as overriding. Issues which may be long term and require a wider perspective, such as environmental issues and investment, will still require a national overview.

It is therefore essential to devise ways in which these two potentially conflicting viewpoints can be integrated and reconciled. It may be doubtful if "trade-offs between environment, economic and social considerations" are always "best made at the local level", where self-interest and an undesirable focus on matters of the moment may sometimes be paramount. Certainly there must always be full consultation and discussion at the local level with the aim of reaching accord wherever possible.

There is little doubt that the "inequalities of wealth, status and power" (para 4) have often led to feelings of helplessness, even fatalism, among rural communities. This has not been helped by the progressive removal of power from local authorities over recent decades. If "the objective is for individuals and groups to take more responsibility for their own development" then various steps must be taken as is implicit in paragraphs 37 and 38. The use of "animateurs" to engage the most local of communities in the development of plans and ideas would be useful but an essential part of this process is ensuring continuity. A number of recent "community" developments in Scotland have depended on the enthusiasm of one or very few individuals to the extent that the good they have done may not survive beyond them. This problem may also restrict the role of some voluntary bodies unless there are effective links between them, the local authority and the wider community.

Most developments of worth have to be put into place over decades rather than months or years. The most critical organisations at the appropriate level are the local authorities. They should be reinvigorated and given the tasks both of putting development in place and of ensuring the involvement of the many communities that form the electorate.

2. Reform of EU Structural Funds (para 52)

Pressure to control the EU budget, coupled with the costs associated with bringing in new member states from Central Europe, make it inevitable that Scotland will get less from the EU. Objective 1 status for the whole Highlands and Islands will probably go; it is questionable if the area really qualifies on the 75% of EU GDP per head test anyway. The only hope might be to retain something for the islands, and perhaps a part of the western seaboard, especially for the Outer Isles. Objective 5b for Borders, Tayside and Dumfries and Galloway is less significant nationally (although critical locally) and must also be in doubt. The paper does not say this, because the Government will not want to give up without a fight, but that must be the reality. Even under British regional policy some of the assisted area coverage in Scotland must be at risk in the next review, given its relative improvement both in GDP per head and unemployment.

As a footnote, we would comment that there have always been problems of additionality here, since the Secretary of State has to provide public expenditure cover for the EU money within his expenditure Block; but the short answer is that we need to retain as much money as we can.

3. & 4. Agenda 2000 and EAGGF Resources (para 60)

The place of agriculture in rural development is recognised. However, forestry (covering 15% of Scotland) is also an important, if not a vital, rural industry. Agenda 2000 and CAP reform should take account of good land use which in the LFAs may point to supporting an increase in forestry through Farm Woodland Schemes rather than only for farming. Support systems should be based on area payments and not commodity payments. The historical barriers between "agriculture" and "forestry" need to be removed. The withdrawal of subsidy from one of these elements of land management affects them all, and it is important that they should be regarded in a holistic way within any rural strategy for Scotland.

In upland Scotland, one of the most undesirable aspects of agricultural support derived from the CAP has been the effect of the headage payments for hill sheep, which have encouraged hill farmers to increase their stock beyond the capability of the vegetation to support them without deterioration. It is very necessary for this type of subsidy to be replaced by one related to the carrying capacity of the land, and preferably one which rewards management geared towards environmental improvement.

5. Fisheries (para 69)

The recognition of the importance of fish farming and game fishing is welcome. The value of fish farming to rural communities should not be undervalued. The failure of the previous Government to use EC anti-dumping legislation, along with the strong pound, has caused considerable damage to the industry. It has made it particularly difficult for smaller (non multinational) businesses to survive.

For sea fisheries the problems are clear enough but nothing convincing is said about solutions. The EU common fisheries policy, with its principle of common access, is misconceived. If fish stocks are not to continue to fall member states will have to move to a policy where access to coastal waters is restricted, not unlike offshore licensing for oil. This might be done by extending the 12 mile limit perhaps to 25 miles and licensing boats that operate within it. This could be very important for small coastal communities and especially for the North East and Shetland. Quotas are useless if they mean that large numbers of dead fish are thrown back into the sea or, as is currently the case, marketed in some areas through unauthorised landings as "black fish". A much closer watch must be keep on "industrial" fisheries of pelagic fish which are a main plank of the marine ecosystem upon which the long-term sustainability of all stocks of marine life depend.

The proposal to use Regulatory and, where appropriate, Several Orders by local communities in partnership with local authorities would be welcome. It would seem sensible to involve the local authorities in what is resource management and conservation. This would also seem consistent with the new planning role for local government in fish farming development.

There is a need and an opportunity to develop an integrated, high value export market in seafood comparable to the quoted examples of Arran Foods and Baxters in para 7.

6. Key Services (para 83)

The acceptance that rural Scotland needs help in the provision of the key services of transport and housing is welcome. The use of rural schools for community purposes also needs encouragement.

There is a considerable problem caused by Right to Buy and in some crofting areas the subsequent sale of housing to holiday-home owners. The result is inadequate rented stock for local people who cannot afford to buy at the prices that incomers are prepared to pay. An increased programme of building by housing associations sponsored by Scottish Homes and other similar bodies is a sensible way to tackle this problem.

There are still several areas of sizeable population in rural Scotland, particularly in the Highlands, with inadequate road access and the quality of road provision as between Highland and Lowland is inequitable. The research commissioned (para 74) to examine car dependency is to be welcomed and attempts to cure the problems of cars in towns should not be formulated in such a way that they destroy, or make prohibitively expensive, the pattern of transport in rural life. The March Budget exacerbated this problem with the universal increase in the price of fuel. A wide-ranging research programme supported by a variety of agencies is required to underpin the decision-making process. Innovative transport, such as marine transport, deserves mention (c.f. the extensive use of seaplanes in W Canada and coastal ferries in Norway).

The preservation of plentiful, clean water resources in rural Scotland must also be given due consideration. With or without climate change, water is going to become an increasingly critical issue in the UK, and more generally in Europe. It could well be that in future water will have to be piped, like gas, over very long distances and Scotland could well become a major source of water to northern England.

Finally, Norway would appear to be rather more successful than we are in regard to the provision of a variety of key services related to the needs of rural communities and their experience should be investigated. Their provision and subsidisation of an efficient ferry service and between island road bridges is a good example that Scotland should study and perhaps emulate.

7. & 8. Rural Partnerships (paras 91 and 98)

Partnerships may certainly have potential, but their efficacy is liable to be very variable in different parts of the country. They may also suffer from lack of powers and lack of finance. It would seem sensible to use local authorities as the spearhead to work out an integrated approach towards sustainable development with some goals and objectives. In doing so they would involve those owning and managing land and other special interest groups as appropriate.

Some question the value of the "partnerships" set up by the previous Government. To some extent these are seen as talking shops which require funds to service themselves. There must be, as suggested, a much clearer objective and role - the creation of committees is not an end in itself. Care should be taken not to create new committees where appropriate ones already exist. For example, the role of local partnerships could perhaps be merged with community councils.

9. Policy Requirements (para 102)

The advent of the Scottish Parliament provides a great opportunity for closer integration of inter-related agencies concerned with natural resource management. There needs to be a simplification of both structures and funding. Giving local authorities a lead role in both activities and co-ordination could help to achieve this. Local authorities understand their areas and can recognise problems and priorities. They are involved in social services, education, training, health and housing. They would be expected to take advice from and account of land managers, SNH, fisheries, forestry and SEPA.

The report fails to deal with the essential problem of how to achieve a successful integration of policies relating to land reform, management of land use and natural resources, social and economic development and environmental conservation. A comprehensive, holistic approach is needed but is not clearly enunciated although it is implied. Research which combines economic and environmental models in order to test the effects of various possible policy changes or development programmes, for example along the lines being pioneered in Sweden, could be considered.

ADDITIONAL COMMENTS ON SECTIONS 1-3

National Parks

There has been much pressure for the establishment of National Parks from the environmental lobby over many years and especially from those involved with the former Countryside Commission. Originally, National Parks were intended, amongst other reasons, to facilitate access to areas of high environmental quality, particularly for those living in cities. This is certainly not what the proponents of the scheme now have in mind, and there is probably agreement that the English model is not wholly appropriate. Nevertheless, we welcome the Government’s intention to set up National Parks in Scotland, as stated in paras 15 and 16. We agree that each National Park should be different, and should have its own organisation tailored to its individual needs (as the consultation document indicates, the problems facing Loch Lomond are certainly different from those in the Cairngorms). That said, both have the problem of conserving heritage and managing large numbers of visitors and a common framework encompassing all "types" of National Park will be essential.

Despite the rather large number of types of designation already in place, a mechanism for the integrated management of relatively large areas of exceptional national (and international) importance is undoubtedly needed. In this respect National Parks will have a distinctive function, and can take their place among other designations (some of which, such as SSSIs, may continue to apply to smaller areas contained within National Parks).

We expect that the creation of National Parks will lead to a sense of pride in the selected areas, both nation-wide and among local people. We appreciate that, in the past, conservation measures have sometimes met with opposition locally because they have been perceived as imposed by remote bureaucracy. The willing participation of those who live and work in these areas, as outlined in paras 12 and 15, will be vital if they are to be convinced that management will be based on sound scientific principles rather than sectoral interests, and will confer benefits on the locality as well as on the nation.

Land Reform

The use of land is a key issue in rural Scotland and this will be a major issue for the Scottish Parliament. Good land management and use that takes account of conservation in its practices and safeguards special sites and heritage should be the overall objectives.

A measure of land reform is essential, so that the legitimate interests of those who live and work on the land, and others who have genuine concern for it, are not indefinitely thwarted, as has happened in some places in the past. In particular, some controls must be brought in on the freedom of private individuals or consortia, especially non-nationals located overseas, to buy large tracts of land (e.g. Highland Estates).

Land reform should have as its main aim the environmental rehabilitation of rural Scotland, and particularly the restoration of human communities and their culture to some of the many localities where such communities were long ago destroyed. Extending the crofting system beyond the existing crofting counties is not favoured. The present arrangements administered by the Crofters Commission are quite bureaucratic and expensive to administer. The initiatives such as those in North Assynt and Eigg are to be welcomed but they are not a blueprint for future landownership but rather an element in ownership patterns. Their success has depended on the initiative coming from the local community and not from above. History would suggest that, in general, continuity of ownership has usually been beneficial to land management and that constant change has not, but there are notable exceptions to this general principle.

Access legislation is also an important issue. Many landowners, in the absence of a tighter trespass law, try to restrict access by putting up notices about shooting and leaving them up all year. Understandably this causes resentment where freedom to walk the hills is a long standing Scottish tradition. Careful use of access and footpath agreements, development of the Ranger Service and the upgrading of hill paths all provide mechanisms for managing access to the countryside. However, more resources are required if these are to be effective. An equitable balance must be struck but the document gives no indication of the options on this important matter or the preferred solutions.

Culture and Economic Benefits

There is a view that small entrepreneurs in rural areas are not well supported and that the funds given to farmers, mainly through the CAP, are not always helping rural development, (indeed their original intention was to increase or maintain agricultural output). About £400m is spent to support farming in Scotland and this is decreasing in real terms. On the other hand, funds for non-agricultural rural development such as the Rural Challenge Fund implemented by the National Rural Partnership is a mere £1.2m. Entrepreneurs (both local and non-local) might be able to contribute more to the community, including employing more people in rural areas, if this type of support were to be increased.

Full advantage should be taken of the opportunities to develop tourism afforded by Scotland’s unique wildlife and scenery but it must be emphasised that great care has to be taken if damage to the fragile resource is to be avoided. It is essential to involve experts capable of taking a wide holistic approach (such as those employed by SAC) when promoting "eco-tourism" or preparing relevant advice. In general, more investigation should be undertaken on ways in which the management and conservation of wildlife and landscape in Scotland can become a bigger source of employment and income.

Finally, it should be noted that most of the activities referred to in para 45 only survive with major financial support from public funds.

Field Sports

Red deer, game birds, wildfowl, salmon and trout are major factors which affect the economic, social and environmental dimensions addressed by this Discussion Paper; yet they are not mentioned (except in passing). They greatly affect access to the countryside; for example, red deer are a major factor in the continued over grazing of the uplands and the lack of regeneration of natural woodland. It is also important to recognise that sporting values are used in assessing the economic worth of land.

Nature Conservation and Local Economic Development

The aim of better integration between nature conservation and economic development is to be welcomed (para 48) and strong support for SSSIs should be maintained. Nevertheless, it has to be recognised that in many instances a clash is inevitable. Farmers will often find it hard to see land designated as an SSSI (or any other term) as anything other than a constraint. Payments should therefore be made for positive management grants, wherever possible, rather than as negative compensation.

Similar considerations apply to the development of tourism (para 50) where the protection of sensitive areas may require access to be restricted. The natural regeneration of native pine woods is an example.

Agriculture and the Reform of CAP

Although reform of the CAP is now inevitable, there is likely to be very considerable resistance from the strong farming lobbies in France and Germany. The problem in Scotland must be that we have a lot of land that is marginal for farming and, unless special measures continue to be taken to protect hill farmers, these areas could be particularly at risk as product prices are reduced. Decoupling agricultural support from production and giving farmers direct income support, as mentioned in the paper, may help to control surpluses but it may make support for farmers even more difficult to justify to the tax-payer in the long run. The paper says (para 57) that production based payments have failed as a means of maintaining the agricultural population but it is doubtful that this was ever their intention. Much of the present fiscal structure derives from the post-war period where "food from our own resources" and greater self-sufficiency in food was paramount.

Highlands and Islands University

The University of the Highlands and Islands (para 79) is an exciting project but the paragraph says nothing about how the project is to be successfully turned into reality or how a properly funded university is to be afforded when the existing universities are already short of funds.
Whatever happens, the valuable technical education, provided by the existing colleges, must be retained. The Highlands require technicians as well as graduates. Changes from agriculture to forestry or to fish farming, or the creation of non land-based small industry, all require training and retraining to be available at convenient distances. It will be essential to provide these facilities if necessary on a "mobile" basis if rural areas are to benefit and be properly equipped.

Emphasis should be given to computer training for young people in rural areas, given the special opportunities that the Internet offers. A few excellent software companies might generate more wealth than most cottage industries. This would necessitate a continuing need to invest in "network provision" (para 6).

 

 

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