Rural Affairs Secretary looks ahead to 2014. 2014 will be a truly momentous year for Scottish farming and our nation. It is a year in which hugely important decisions will be taken on the future of Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) – and with the independence referendum on 18th September – on the future of our whole country.
It is in our national interest that we retain the skills and capacity to produce food on our own land. That s why we have to get these big decisions right. We are now consulting on how to implement the new CAP in Scotland and how to allocate our budgets in the coming years.
If there is one thing I have learnt these past years it is how our constitutional arrangements influence the success of farming. We may face tough decisions in Scotland over how to allocate Europe s lowest share of CAP budgets but if the UK Government had got its way and not been outvoted by the other member states then direct payments to Scotland s farms would have been reduced even further. That s one reason why we need to speak up for ourselves in Europe and not let others with different priorities speak for us.
I firmly believe that independence will deliver major gains for Scotland s farmers and rural communities. For example, with independence, Scotland will be able to negotiate directly within the EU and we will make the agriculture sector a priority, including vital future discussions on the Common Agricultural Policy. If Scotland had been independent during the recent CAP negotiations, we would have qualified for a ‘ 1 billion agricultural subsidy uplift.
We would also have had the opportunity to join 16 other EU countries in negotiating hundreds of millions of euros more in rural development funding money that we could invest in rural tourism, environmental protection, broadband and renewables, and start-up assistance for young farmers. Instead, the UK Government has negotiated a comparatively worse deal for Scotland. As if that wasn t bad enough, the UK qualified for a ‘ 220 million uplift because of Scotland s low payments but instead of that funding coming to Scottish farmers, in line with the wishes of the European Union and Scottish Parliament, it was divvied up across the whole of the UK.
There is also the prospect of agricultural support being cut completely if Scotland remains in the UK. Scotland faces the possibility of leaving the EU because of Westminster s planned in-out European referendum. If there is a vote to leave the EU, Scottish agriculture and our rural industries will no longer be part of the CAP and will be in the hands of a Westminster government with a stated policy of phasing out farm payments.
It is clear to me that the only government capable of properly representing Scotland s interests is a government elected by, and directly accountable to, the people of Scotland. Independence also offers the opportunity to put in place a system of farming levies that is designed specifically to promote Scottish produce and not that of our competitors, as is currently the case. Another benefit of independence is the power to regulate vital services such as broadband, mobile telecoms and postal services to ensure that communities and businesses are not unfairly penalised on price or coverage simply because they live in rural parts of the country.
Rural Scotland has been repeatedly let down on these issues by the UK Government which has failed to prioritise our needs in domestic policies and, in EU negotiations, has argued and acted against Scotland s interests. Despite the cards we have been dealt in the past, we must now look to the future. Of immediate interest to farming is the Scottish Government s consultation on the best way to implement the new CAP in Scotland so that it meets our nation s unique and diverse needs.
While other countries in Europe are deciding how to spend their additional funds, I am having to decide what to do with a much smaller budget. That means the new rural development programme must be more focused. The previous SRDP tried to be all things to all people, and spread the jam a little too thinly.
This time round, we must ensure that the available funding is better targeted at priority areas such as LFASS and agri-environment schemes to ensure maximum benefit for our limited resources. We will also design a new system of direct payments in 2014 and we must ensure that it is as fair, as simple and as green as possible. This means we need to strike the right balance between flexibility and simplicity so that we can maintain the capacity to produce food as a nation while protecting the environment.
Some farmers will want time to adjust to this new system, but I am not prepared to make new entrants wait a minute longer than necessary to receive direct payments. The provisions we have secured for the National Reserve means that new entrants and other currently excluded from Single Farm Payments will get a fair deal from day one of the new CAP. Greening the new CAP also offers a tremendous opportunity for Scottish farming.
The high quality food produced by our farmers is in demand all over the world, with Scotland s abundance of natural resources and fantastic raw ingredients helping to give us a competitive edge on the international stage. Greening is an opportunity to take this one step further, to showcase our environmental credentials and carve out a niche for ourselves in global markets. In addition, climate friendly farming methods can save money while helping to reduce carbon footprints, as demonstrated by Scotland s first Climate Change Focus Farms.
How we use our land will also be a fundamental issue in 2014, with both my Review of Agricultural Holdings Legislation and the Land Reform Review Group due to report back. Our relationship with land is a key part of our identity and it is essential it works in the interests of people of Scotland and contributes to building a fairer society supporting both sustainable land use and our rural economy. And of course Scotland s spectacular landscapes and natural beauty will take centre stage in 2014 when Scotland welcomes the world for our second Year of Homecoming, in which we host the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games and The Ryder Cup.
These events will be seen by more than a billion people across the globe, and will attract many thousands of visitors to our shores, generating millions of pounds for the Scottish economy.
The decisions we make in 2014, in the full glare of the global spotlight, will determine the future of this land.
These are important decisions and it is important we get them right.