This article was published in the Press & Journal on Saturday 1 March 2014.
By Andrew Midgley, Head of Policy at Scottish Land & Estates
The Scotland Rural Development Programme is really important. Injecting £1.326bn into rural economies is no small matter and we need to get it right. Although the budget is smaller than the headline budget last time round - and although we sit at the bottom of the rural development funding tables - it is a vital funding stream that can do a lot of good. Indeed, it is precisely because it matters so much that there are so many different interests trying to pull the funding in their particular direction. However, there is one matter that overshadows the development of the next programme which should make us all think carefully about the changes that we want to see and that issue is clearly the significant adjustment to the direct farm support regime.
While the detail is not yet set in stone, we all know that the agricultural support landscape is about to radically change and that the consequences for farm businesses will be far reaching. The coming years will present significant challenges to many businesses across Scotland that will have to adapt as the new regime is introduced and it is this context that is all important when considering the proposals for the next SRDP.
It is vital that we do not change everything radically all at once. While direct farm support is being reformed, a degree of stability in the rest of the funding landscape will be important not least because we need to avoid replicating the bureaucratic nightmare experienced in England a few years ago. This means that schemes such as LFASS, which is provided through the rural development budget, must continue to be supported without radical change in the short to medium term. This has significant consequences for the scope of the rest of the SRDP because LFASS is the single biggest expenditure, but, nevertheless, what is needed is a pragmatic acceptance of the reality for farm businesses across Scotland.
Having said this, it is important to acknowledge that LFASS is under significant pressure and will have to change to ANC’s by 2018 anyway. So what’s really important is that the Scottish Government needs to be able to move funds around between priorities within the programme. Once we are a little bit further down the road and the impact of the changes in Pillar 1 are better understood, it may be appropriate to revisit the allocation of funds and there may be opportunities to re-prioritise. This is important because while Scottish Land & Estates takes the pragmatic stance of seeking to protect farm businesses from too much change all at once, the SRDP also represents a chance to support wider rural development and rural businesses and it may be that there are opportunities to help rural areas adapt to the changing economic and social circumstances.
Rural areas will continue to change and we need to be looking to the future and preparing our rural businesses and communities for things to come. We can’t continue with the status quo forever; rather we need some strategic vision for rural development and a much better evidence base about our rural areas and how they are changing in order to develop a more targeted rural development policy and programme. So while we have to be pragmatic in the medium term, we also have to have a stronger focus on the future so that we can foster real dynamism and prosperity in our rural areas.