By RYAN TAYLOR
Agriculture in rural areas should receive greater support to help address the growing global demand for food anticipated by the middle of this century as the world’s population increases from six billion to approximately nine billion.
Chairman of the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s Inquiry into the Future of Scotland’s Hills and Islands Professor Gavin McCrone said current rural policies did not go far enough to help maintain fragile communities – communities that should be playing a major role in providing vital food supplies.
His comments came as part of a whistle-stop tour to present his findings and allow crofters and farmers the chance to respond to the hefty inquiry report, commissioned in the first half of 2007. Crofters Commission chairman Drew Ratter was one of the authors of the report.
Addressing around 30 folk at the Lerwick Hotel on Tuesday night, Professor McCrone said improved market conditions and a more favourable rate of exchange were not enough to take away dependence from rural communities on continued public support.
He criticised an unpopular proposal by the UK government to end support for the UK’s livestock producers when the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is reviewed after 2013.
“In the past there have been many people in the world who have been inadequately fed, but countries didn’t have the resources to buy into world food markets,” he said. “That is changing. The annual rate of growth is 10 per cent in China alone. Diet is changing, more in favour of meat. Against that background it’s ridiculous to think about withdrawing support from agriculture and letting it decline.
“Maintaining our own agricultural industry helps to maintain a degree of food security. Without it we’d be totally dependent on world markets. The world’s population is going to grow from six billion to around nine billion by the middle of this century. How are they going to be fed?”
Figures released from the Scottish government show agriculture in the hills and islands accounts for 58 per cent of Scotland’s beef and 78 per cent of its sheep output, sparking warnings that any measure which would allow agriculture to decline would have a dramatic impact on the level of produce available.
Professor McCrone said livestock producers would not be able to continue with anything like present levels of production if direct support was removed. His comments did not entirely focus on agriculture, however.
The inquiry also found tourism in hills and islands still had work to do if VisitScotland was going to meet its target of increasing visitor numbers by half within six years.
Professor McCrone said Shetland was a prime example of how there was “enormous diversity” in Scotland, and said there was a strong case for locally managed groups able to provide grant aid and assist projects.
There were also calls for greater housing provision to help build up the population, which has shown signs of dropping in recent years.
Transport links needed to be more affordable, he said, while Shetland realises the true potential made available by its sources of renewable energy.
An ending of support for agriculture from the CAP could spell the end for Scotland’s hills and islands.
Professor McCrone said he was in “complete disagreement” with a 2005 paper from the treasury proposing direct help from CAP should come to an end after 2013.
The suggestion has been put forward as an attempt to achieve a more competitive advantage for agriculture in the UK, but the inquiry committee were “astonished” to find the proposal had been handed to the EU without it first having been discussed with the Scottish government or, for that matter, the Welsh and Northern Irish administrations.
“We find ourselves in conflict with the paper published by the treasury in 2005 that argued for the ending of all direct support for agriculture,” he said. “The paper argued the only payments made should be for public good, such as environmental change. We think that would be catastrophic for hills and islands communities. “ It is not just farmers and crofters who disagree with the idea, however. The paper’s proposals have been treated with deep scepticism from most of the member states.
Claiming it would spell the end of the single farm payment made out to farmers and crofters, he said up to £400 million of the £500 million of assistance which went to the agricultural sector came out of SFP.
“We find it extraordinary that this was put forward without any attempt to assess the implications, and we find it incredible that none of the devolved authorities were ever consulted.”
The report found SFP does need changing, however. Currently single farm payments are paid on a basis of historical income, effectively giving crofters and farmers the freedom to use their payments as a prop to their pensions, without doing much with their land at all.
That, said Professor McCrone, does nothing to boost productivity in rural areas.
Instead, the committee recommends the Scottish government should accelerate plans to make the payments on an area basis instead.
If SFP was attached to the land, the report says, new entrants into farming or crofting would have ready access to it, helping to improve population figures.
The committee also learned only a fraction of the money allocated under the Less Favoured Area Support scheme went to Scotland compared with other European countries.
The EU allocation for 2007-2013 for Scotland amounts to £7.4 million per hectare per year – way down at the bottom of a list, which puts Austria, with £121.8 million, at the top.
The report has been warmly welcomed by those in the farming community, who backed the committee’s calls for SFP to be tied to the land.
One crofter said the SFP system as it stood acted as a deterrent for young people who wanted to get into crofting – a feeling seemingly confirmed by statistics, which show the average age of a farmer is between 58 and 60.
East Voe farmer Ronnie Eunson said he had been amused to find the only island in Britain which fell into an island category of LFAS was the Scilly Isles.
Others expressed fears over getting a fair price from supermarkets.
It started out as a comment on local tourism, but some words from Professor McCrone led to a barrage of complaints from those attending Tuesday’s meeting over state aid regulations.
Highlighting possible ways of attracting more visitors to the hills and islands, the committee chairman stumbled across what has obviously become a sore point for many.
Professor McCrone told the audience tourism in hills and islands would best improve under a revamped VisitScotland which was better able to support local initiatives.
“Local food has an important role to play in this, but that is very different in many parts of Scotland because there aren’t processing facilities nearby because meat has to go so far to get developed.
“Abattoirs are a major problem because they seem to be essential for the local livestock industry, and I know in Lewis they have problems with state aid, which means abattoirs are closed half the time. These problems have to be faced and need to be sorted out.”
At the mention of state aids, one man said he had been disappointed by how much progress had slowed down because people had stood like “rabbits caught in the headlights” over fears they may unintentionally break the rules.
Council convener Sandy Cluness said the recession had shown state aid to be shambolic. “The one bright spark in the present economic climate is that state aids have been shown for what they are, which is a sham.”
He highlighted the European Commission’s controversial decision to force the SIC to claw back £1million paid out to fishermen over the last decade.
Mr Cluness said that in the present economic climate where organisations throughout Europe were seeking help to survive, the move smacked of “double standards”.
He added: “Why anyone would think we’re ever going to get fairness out of the EU baffles me.”
A quick examination of tourism figures reveals some pretty impressive statistics.
In Scotland, for example, tourism employs around 200,000 people, generating £4 billion per annum.
In the hills and islands, tourism is no less important. It accounts for eight per cent of the GDP for the Highlands.
However Professor McCrone cast into doubt ambitious plans by VisitScotland to increase tourism revenues by 50 per cent between 2005 and 2015.
He said while many tourist attractions provide an excellent service, others are left wanting.
“There are excellent tourist facilities in Scotland, but there are also many that are too poor. The quality is too variable.”
He criticised newspaper reports after the report’s release which claimed the committee wanted to see VisitScotland brought down, insisting “we want to revamp it. VisitScotland is just a marketing body”.
Mr Cluness said Shetland had to be promoted as a unique destination, because it was so far away from anywhere else in Scotland.
“People don’t realise Shetland is in competition with Orkney, that it’s in competition with Grampian.
“We’ve got to be different and we’ve got to sell ourselves. We’re not part of the Highlands and Islands. We have so many differences that the only way to promote Shetland is to do it ourselves.
“In effect, we have to find a way to get somebody when he comes to Grampian to get on the bloody boat and come the extra few miles.”
Affordable housing has long been recognised as an ongoing problem in Shetland. The issue is no stranger to other areas covered by the inquiry.
The right to buy, first introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s government, along with rising house prices in recent years have combined to put ownership beyond the means of many people.
Recognising the efforts made by housing associations such as Hjaltland, Professor McCrone called on the Scottish government to increase the Housing Association Grant made available to them.
The report also calls for a similar scheme to be introduced for the private sector.
One woman said larger crofts had essentially been “asset-stripped” to provide smaller holdings which struggled to remain viable.
“We want vibrant communities, but not at the cost of land we’re going to need to work on,” she said.
The meeting heard many houses were being bought, but councillor Alastair Cooper said they were being bought “by folk coming in who are no longer economically active”.
Measures to combat absenteeism in crofting and providing new crofts have also been supported by the committee, which it says should inspire younger folk to remain in rural areas for longer.
That viewpoint was supported by Mr Cluness, who said Shetland’s population continued to be too small.
“Whatever needs to be done in agriculture, there needs to be some system where new crofts can be provided. Unless we get this right and unless the government and others pay heed to this report we will have a continual drain on our population.”
Renewable Energy /Transport
Shetland should benefit in a similar way from wind power as it has done from oil, following changes to the charging system for connecting to the national grid which currently penalises rural areas.
Professor McCrone said the committee had been aware of the “tremendous scope” that existed for wind power, and also in the longer term for marine power.
“For this to be successful we need a charging system for connecting to the main grid. That’s too difficult with the present system. We’d also like to see communities secure financial benefits from renewable energy projects.
“We’re aware you have secured enormous benefit from the development of North Sea oil. That didn’t happen in the past with hydro schemes, but we’d like to see a financial benefit for rural areas.”
He added transport was “very important” for island communities, and stressed something like the Road Equivalent Tariff (RET) scheme currently being rolled out in the Western Isles for a three-year trial period needed to be seen in Shetland.
“It’s not really a pilot scheme because it’s going out over three years. If you put in place a scheme like that you can never really take it away again.
“It does seem to me if there is going to be benefit for the Western Isles with RET then something needs to be done for the Shetland isles as well.”