Farmers and crofters are set to be spared a 15 per cent cut to a grant scheme even though producers say they are prepared to share the burden of economic cutbacks.
Councillors today voted six-three in favour of allocating £100,000 per annum over three years to the Shetland Agricultural Business Scheme (SABS), although some wanted to see the level of subsidy curtailed.
Rick Nickerson told the development committee he favoured slashing the annual allocation to £85,000 across all sections but with a specific “emphasis” on fertiliser, as that would have the least impact on the industry.
He said the council had been asked to find 15 per cent of savings in all departments, while the recommendation for SABS was “the status quo”.
“The message I’ve been getting is the industry understands it needs to accept some efficiencies in terms of the support from the council and possibly other funders as well,” said Mr Nickerson.
He pointed to a report before councillors which said the £100,000-worth of annual SABS intervention in 2008 typically represented only 1.1 per cent of the subsidy received from all sources by the local industry during the same period. Cutting the support, in that case, would have minimal impact on producers.
Adding his support to Mr Nickerson, Cecil Smith said: “I’ve had crofters speaking to me about this. They’re saying they are prepared to take a 15 per cent cut. If they are prepared to take it then we should be prepared to listen to them.”
However Bill Manson wanted to see the full amount being approved, as long as future budgetary constraints don’t stand in the way.
He recognised sheep prices had gone up in recent years, but insisted cattle prices had “only gone up by a very small margin compared with what they were in the 1980s”.
Allan Wishart pointed to figures in the report which said 437 applicants had benefited from help with fertiliser from 2008-2010.
“It’s still quite important for some,” he said, calling for “definitive figures” to be drawn on the impact the grant reduction would have.
Head of business development Douglas Irvine said councillors could call for a review to take place next year once the wider picture of how budgets in the council will stand is better understood – a move Mr Manson was happy to accept.
A separate report before councillors pointed to a need to identify further savings before a council meeting on 8th December in light of a moratorium on non-essential spending.
Not all were in favour of cutting support to agriculture, however – an industry that in recent years has felt itself to be playing second fiddle to fishing and aquaculture.
Florence Grains said the council’s policy had been to keep folk in the country to spread the population around the isles.
“If we don’t do something like this we’ll be dragging folk out of rural areas,” she warned.
Yell councillor Robert Henderson wanted to ensure the axe only fell on grants allocated to fertiliser, which in 2008-10 reached £152,385.64. However he failed to secure enough backing, with chairman Josie Simpson stating it was too soon to start cutting individual grants.
The SABS scheme was introduced three years ago in light of a row over state aid restrictions.
The scheme ensures any assistance offered to producers is low enough not to distort the market.
Agreement for the scheme to run for the next three years has already been given by the Scottish government. Today’s debate simply focused on whether the council should renew it.
As well as fertiliser, money has been used to help with the purchase of cattle, crops and lime.
Interestingly, the discussion prompted almost a mass exodus from the chamber, as Jim Budge, Alison Duncan and Laura Baisley – who all work in agriculture – headed for the door.
Mr Wishart said their decision not to remain reflected the confusion that abounds about conflicts of interest. “We’re left only with non-crofters in here,” he said.