Fishing and farming. If you believed the Tories, you might think that’s all that rural Scotland is. The publication last week of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party’s plans for rural Scotland admittedly contains some positive aspects – universal broadband for all, for example – but its focus and its omissions show just how out of touch the party is with the every day lives of most folk in the South and across rural Scotland.
No one would deny that life is pretty tough for many farmers today. Beyond the impact of the delays in CAP payments, many farmers find themselves haemorrhaging cash as the stranglehold of the supermarkets means overproduction and ever lower payments to producers. The answers to these problems are many and complex, including a renewed relationship between farmers and consumers and an overhaul of procurement of food to better support and promote Scottish produce. We also need to do much more to encourage young people into farming, with affordable and secure tenancies, training and investment. But to focus a rural manifesto almost solely on farmers is to dismiss the 94% of the South whose employment is outwith farming, fishing and forestry.
As the Scottish Rural Parliament discovered last year, for most folk in rural areas, their number one concern is a lack of jobs and particularly a lack of well paying jobs. Dumfries and Galloway has the highest rate of people working two or three jobs in Scotland – it’s not a choice but a necessity when the work is scarce and low paid. For me and for Greens, job creation and investment must be at the heart of any long term vision for the rural economy. Luckily, our jobs briefing sets out exactly how we’ll create 204,000 new jobs over the next few years.
On investment, it’s always struck me as bizarre that despite facing many of the same issues with depopulation, poor connections and lack of investment, the South gets nowhere near the support that the Highlands get from government agencies. Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) deserves high praise for the attention it has brought to issues north of the central belt. Broadband investment and the levering of European funding, alongside support for community development and ownership of land and assets are just some of the vital functions HIE performs.
Yet in the South, we have the same Scottish Enterprise that serves the central belt, along with a confused picture of various bodies trying to support separate activities. The result is some duplication of effort but many gaps in the support available to businesses, particularly small and micro businesses and community enterprises. The Scottish Green Party is pledging a new agency for rural Scotland, particularly for the South which would extend the HIE model and focus investment in infrastructure, small and micro business and social enterprise and community development. It’s a move that I hope would gain cross party support, given the endorsement for it in the Our Borderlands, Our Future report published by the Scottish Affairs Committee in the last UK Parliament.
For me, rural development is and always has been about empowering people to live, work and prosper in rural areas. That means ensuring that rural communities have the necessary investment in jobs, housing and infrastructure including communications networks and good transport links. Beyond these essentials, we have to acknowledge and act upon the fact that our rural areas are suffering from an exodus of young people.
As one of those young people who left to study, I know that providing more chances to learn at further and higher education level would go a long way to keeping young people in rural areas. But providing what one school friend of mine calls a “get home strategy” would also help. For many young people who leave, there’s often a strong desire to return to our roots and build a life in the communities where we grew up. Yet if the jobs aren’t there and if there’s no support to create your own job or start a business, that desire will remain unfulfilled and our rural population will continue to decline.
Again, rural development all comes back to jobs and learning opportunities, investment and infrastructure. If we can crack these issues, perhaps the rest of Scotland will start to see that we are more than fishing and farming.