What does new Government programme mean for rural Scotland?
Scotland’s islands, like the Isle of Skye, are among the focus areas of the programme.
The Scottish Government Programme for 2021-22 contains a great deal that is relevant to rural and island communities. Although many of the commitments in ‘A Fairer, Greener Scotland: Programme for Government 2021-22’ apply nationally, it is essential that they are informed by evidence and knowledge of the specific characteristics of rural and island economies and communities. This will ensure that the Scottish Government delivers the same positive outcomes across the length and breadth of Scotland.
What does the new Programme for Government mean for rural Scotland?
The Scottish Government published ‘A Fairer, Greener Scotland: Programme for Government 2021-22’ on Tuesday 7 September. While much attention has focused on what the Programme has to say about the plans for another independence referendum (to take place after pandemic recovery and likely before the end of 2023, p7), there is much in the Programme which is of relevance to rural and island communities. This might be either in the form of specific funding streams or initiatives, or interventions that are national in scope but which may require tailoring (in design and/or delivery mechanisms) to ensure that the same positive outcomes are delivered across the length and breadth of Scotland.
The Programme notes the ongoing commitment to “stability and simplicity” (p87) and the establishment of the new Agriculture Reform Implementation Oversight Board (ARIOB, announced in late August). The Board will develop new proposals for sustainable farming support building on the work of the Farmer-Led Groups and informed by the current consultation on agricultural transition. The work of the ARIOB will inform the development of the Statutory Consultation to be published in 2022 to set out the full rationale and proposals for a future Agriculture Bill, though the 2021-22 Programme is already clear about the Scottish Government’s commitment to increase conditionality of support (p87), with targeted outcomes for biodiversity gain and a drive towards low carbon approaches which improve resilience, efficiency and profitability.
Agricultural stakeholders are anxious to see rapid progress on shaping Scotland’s future agricultural policies – policies that could still be influenced by the Westminster Government through the Common Framework on Agricultural Support, the UK Internal Market Act 2020 and the Subsidy Control Bill.
The Programme makes specific mention of the co-investment for the new vertical farm at SRUC in Edinburgh (p87), and notes a number of other agricultural commitments:
- doubling the amount of land for organic farming by 2026 (p88)
- considering options for paying agricultural workers the living wage (p88)
- increasing support for practical solutions for women living and working in agriculture (p88)
- continuing to support the modernisation of tenant farming (p88)
- the launch of a commission to undertake a full and comprehensive review of land based learning with the aim of increasing opportunities for more people, particularly more women and young people, to gain qualifications, training and employment in the land-based and aquaculture sectors (p86) – the Commission will produce recommendations by 2022-23 to improve the learning ‘pipeline’ from early years to university and college
Other land-based activities
The Programme includes a commitment to ensure funding within a post‑CAP system is ring‑fenced for tree planting, orchard creation, and woodland regeneration, as well as support for the development of rural businesses linked with forestry (p66). One new National Park will also be designated by the end of this Parliament (subject to legal conditions being met), and money made available to improve visitor facilities, safety measures and access opportunities, including in regional parks (p66).
There is no mention in the Programme of the Crofting Reform Bill that was in the pipeline before Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic, for which much preparatory work has already been undertaken.
A review of land-based learning aims to increase opportunities for women and young people.
Land reform, land use and the natural economy
The Programme reiterates the Scottish Government’s commitment to tackle the concentration of land ownership in Scotland, which it argues can have detrimental effects for rural communities. There is a commitment to develop and bring forward a Land Reform Bill to tackle the scale and concentration of land ownership across rural and urban areas. This will include provision for a statutory public interest test which will apply to transfers of land holdings over a particular size, with a presumption in favour of community buy-out when the test applies (p86). Related to this, there is a commitment to double the Scottish Land Fund from £10m to £20m per year by the end of this Parliament to support community ownership projects in rural and urban areas across the country (p86).
Building on the Just Transition Commission’s recommendation relating to increasing engagement with the Land Use Partnerships, the 2021-22 Programme commits the Scottish Government to build on the learning from the Regional Land Use Partnership pilots established during 2021 to develop plans for a second phase from 2023, with broad membership and participation. The second phase is to be welcomed, and it will be important to assess how well the new pilots can help address land use and land use change issues, and consider what major topics/issues also need to be addressed by additional means.
The Programme contains several other commitments of importance to the natural economy, including:
- a Natural Environment Bill later in the Parliament to put in place key legislative changes and statutory targets to restore and protect nature (p11)
- £500m investment in the natural economy, including the expansion of the Nature Restoration Fund, creating local nature networks and increased forestry and peatland (p11)
- a Circular Economy Bill later in the Parliamentary session (p67)
- a commitment to deliver at least three carbon neutral islands by 2040 (p11)
A focus on food
The Programme contains a commitment to introduce a Good Food Nation Bill which was paused in the last Parliament due to the Covid-19 pandemic (p90). It is anticipated that the Bill will provide a clear, legislative framework which places statutory responsibilities on Scottish Ministers and specified public bodies to publish statements setting out the main outcomes they want to achieve in relation to food-related issues, the policies needed to do this, and the indicators or measures required to assess progress. The Government has also committed to further consider whether there is a need for a statutory body, and in support of this work the Ministerial Working Group on Food will be reinstated (p90).
The Programme also notes the consultation currently open on the draft Local Food Strategy which aims to provide better coordination and support for local food production (including ‘grow your own’ initiatives, connecting Scottish producers with buyers, and harnessing public sector procurement), as part of the wider vision for healthy, sustainable and local food. The consultation will inform the revision of the Strategy and an accompanying action plan. It is worth also noting the Scottish Government’s commitment to seek new opportunities to prioritise local and organic produce in public sector menus. While this focus on local food production may bring new market opportunities for rural and island entrepreneurs, there may be delivery challenges in these communities where the ‘local’ production base may be narrower.
Future economic transformation and a digital economy
The 2021-22 Programme reiterates the Government’s commitment to the “ambitious 10-year agenda of economic transformation to help seize and realise Scotland’s potential” (p12). This includes working towards:
- a greener economy, by investing in skills, technologies and jobs which will help secure a just transition to net zero
- an economy that is fairer, by boosting workers’ pay and voices, and directing support to those at greatest risk of poverty or discrimination
- an economy that is inclusive, investing in supporting local communities across rural and urban Scotland to shape their futures
As part of this work, the Programme includes a commitment to establish a just transition plan for every sector and region, and to promote a net zero economy with opportunities for all. Protection of the natural and marine environment is recognised as key, with a commitment to reverse ecological decline and place nature-based solutions as central to Scotland’s climate obligations (p5). All of this activity will align with the commitment to a wellbeing economy based on the principles of equality, sustainability, prosperity and resilience (p12), and to the recommendations of the Just Transition Commission (p53).
It is promising to see the recognition by the Scottish Government that “the economy needs to work for all of Scotland’s people and places” (p12). It will be important to ensure that the 10-year plan recognises the particular characteristics, challenges and opportunities of Scotland’s rural and island businesses and the communities in which they are located. One size certainly does not fit all when it comes to business support and skills development and training interventions for businesses in different places. Moreover, there are long-standing challenges relating to digital connectivity, housing and transport which are also critical to shaping the future trajectories for rural and island businesses and communities.
One particular commitment to rural economies in the Government’s Programme is the £20m Rural Entrepreneur Fund to “promote a thriving rural economy”, which will (in the coming financial year) provide grants of up to £10,000 to support the relocation or creation of 2,000 new businesses. In turn, this will help to build up our rural economies, providing local skilled employment and reversing depopulation (p85).
The Scottish Government’s aspiration to develop a digital economy (p79) is to be welcomed, but improved connectivity in rural and island areas is not just about improving broadband, important though that is. It is also fundamental to allowing greater use of innovative digital technologies, sensors, etc. by existing and new businesses that are needed in rural areas. For example, SRUC’s Hill and Mountain Research Centre at Kirkton and Auchtertyre Farms near Crianlarich is currently working to assess how technology can be used in different ways in agricultural and environmental management, including the use of sensors in remote and mountainous areas to improve decision-making.
The Programme highlights the co-investment for SRUC’s new vertical farm in Edinburgh.
What about persistent rural and island challenges?
The Programme includes a commitment to bring 4G to Scotland’s rural and island communities and to support the wider resilience of rural and urban communities through delivering new, green affordable homes, tackling homelessness and rough sleeping, supporting inclusive communities and accelerating our transition to net zero by ensuring people have access to the services they need in their own neighbourhoods (p13).
The design of these interventions will need to be informed by a strong evidence base to ensure that they are appropriately tailored to different places, including rural and island communities. For example, homelessness may be more hidden and experienced differently in rural and island communities (less rough sleeping for example, but more people ‘sofa surfing’ with friends and family). An example of recognising the need for more tailored activity in the Programme is the reference to “island-focused activity” through the Young Person’s Guarantee, which will provide a job or a place in education or training, or a formal volunteering opportunity for every young person (p86).
There are other commitments too where evidence-gathering and consultation will be required to ensure the intervention is as relevant and appropriate for rural and island communities as for urban communities – such as the commitment to be a Fair Work Nation by 2025 (p12) and £200m funding for the Scottish National Investment Bank’s portfolio (p69).
There is a commitment to deliver 110,000 affordable homes by 2032, including 10 per cent in remote, rural and island communities. This will be supported by a Remote, Rural and Islands Housing Action Plan (p13), which it is hoped will recognise the specific and long-standing challenges of delivering such affordable housing in our rural and island locations. More generally, £30m will be invested over the next five years through the Islands Programme to support the delivery of the National Islands Plan and a fair, integrated, green and inclusive recovery. This includes the £2m Island Communities Fund (grants to support employment and community resilience), an Islands Infrastructure Fund to deliver critical infrastructure projects, and a Healthy Islands Fund to improve mental well being post pandemic and to enable participation in healthy lifestyle and physical activities across the islands (p85).
Depopulation continues to be recognised as a challenge in the Programme hence the commitment to develop a Rural Visa Pilot Proposal to support people to move to and work in rural communities, with a joint Scottish Government-COSLA proposal to be submitted to the UK Government in 2022 (p109).
Rural social care
Finally, the Programme sets out the commitment to “the biggest public service reform since the founding of the NHS – the creation of a National Care Service”. This will follow on from the consultation launched recently (during the SNP Government’s first 100 days), with legislation for its establishment brought forward to June 2022. The National Care Services Bill will include measures relating to the delivery of care, improved standards, ensure enhanced pay and provide better support for unpaid carers (p117).
Given the particular challenges of delivering social care in rural areas, not least relating to higher costs (see the recent Rural Lives project report for more discussion of this), it will be interesting to see how this new National Care Service is shaped to take account of the particular circumstances in rural and island communities. It is noteworthy that the Programme contains a commitment to “ensure that our islands and rural areas are not left behind as we work to improve health services by creating a centre of excellence for rural and remote medicine and social care, with scoping work starting this year.” (p32)
This is a wide-ranging Programme for Government which sets out both specific commitments and a general direction of travel for the Scottish Government over the course of the next Parliament as the country recovers from the Covid-19 pandemic. Given the ever-increasing complexity of the policy environment, which is evident in the size and breadth of the portfolios of the Cabinet Secretaries and Ministers in the Scottish Government and the remits of the associated Parliamentary Committees, the need for accurate and up-to-date evidence about our rural and island communities and ongoing consultation with those communities has never been greater. With SEFARI partners, SRUC is involved in delivering the current Scottish Government’s Strategic Programme 2016-21 and shaping the next Programme from 2022-2027 both of which directly inform many of these issues.
SRUC’s Rural Policy Centre has a history of providing objective and independent information of relevance to specific topics and the broader rural economy in Scotland – more information about our work is available on our Rural Policy pages. Look out for more commentary on specific policy issues in the Programme for Government coming soon from the RPC.
Posted by SRUC on 14/09/2021