What should we do about farming?

What should we do about farming?

by Jonathan Stanley
article from Tuesday 14, March, 2017

TWO SCOTS, a Unionist and a Nationalist, walk into Holyrood. They talk about matters reserved to Westminster and then the Tories defend the Westminster government from the Scottish government-in-opposition – who talk about anything except what they are empowered to change and take responsibility for.

They have the same punchlines over and over again and this time it's about farming.  The nationalists say, of course, it should be "oors" and the Unionists say, of course, it should "nae be".

Oh my; eyes down, look in, another almighty fractricidal havering's afoot.

The Ulsterised politics of Holyrood dictates this. It is unwise for either camp to lay down firm lines over how farming should be devolved if at all. We haven't had our Brexit tea and barely scratched the surface of how agriculture in the UK should be handled.

Farming falls under a common agricultural policy that has made landlords and food processors very rich indeed. It has done little for biodiversity, traditional farming and certainly not for employment. We are more reliant than ever on imported labour for fruit-picking. It's hard to remember let alone justify that Common Agriculture Policy was meant to be about food security.

Is this still an issue? Why are we subsidising wheat and sugar beet when we can buy such foods so much cheaper from Canada and Jamaica? Is there a regional development dividend from growing barley in bulk as there is for upland sheep farming?  

Are we ever going to get a grip of investment rules to allow Enterprise Investment Schemes to plough luvvies' cash into scallop ranching, orchards and cod farming as they do for schmaltzy B movies now? 

And how do we manage Ireland where farming dominates the rural economy yet it will soon be under different agricultural regimes? An island can indeed have a divided farming policy and soon we will be dealing with it, like it or not.

Maybe France and Germany can subsidise UK consumption of Irish dairy and beef, if so then so much the better for us here but are we going to match their subsidy in Ulster or simply have a UK wide tariff come what may?

I have a suspicion neither side has really thought this one out and there is much to lose if we get it wrong. If food security is an issue are we to subsidise Ireland too? If not, should our spending be solely on rural stewardship and positive externalities of farming? That could mean slashing subsidies quite dramatically and using them to fund regional development instead. Could that be a winner?

Devolution of farming may or may not be a good idea depending on how we value certain aspects of it. Are the benefits pooled UK-wide or confined to the local economy? Is there ever such a thing? 

We live in a peaceful world relatively speaking. We are not a month away from a naval blockage and our population is primarily urban, that applies to Scotland as well as for the UK as a whole. We may be less inclined to subsidise farming than we first think.

Upland management may be best devolved to Holyrood, better still to the Highland Council and Cumbria County Council for that matter. Maybe those local authorities in control of the uplands are best placed to administer such policy. Then again who would be in charge of the National Parks across the UK?

A lot of questions have not been asked and we haven't declared Article 50 yet. Too quickly the Holyrood parties are drawing red lines that makes for cheerful theatre and needless performances. This is not a grown up parliament and given its management of current payments to farmers it doesn't bode well for Holyrood to run the show.

That's not to say Westminster will be much better. Legislation is required to not devolve agriculture and fisheries management as they are not listed as reserved, thus the devolved competencies should be automatic. A leak to the Daily Telegraph suggests there will be seven additional Brexit Bills including two on Farming and fishing – quelle surprise?

The UK government has given a commitment to maintain CAP payments for 5 years after the day of Brexit - so that means it will have to find a devolved solution that meets that commitment. It would then be up to the Scottish Government and Parliament to decide if that should be uprated in any way (obviously it could not be cut for 5 years). If Scotland left the current UK-wide regime would that promise from the UK Government not lapse? How would it be funded?

Maybe it's time we all had a nice cup of tea somewhere calm in Morningside and asked ourselves as the UK what we really want out of all of this.

Or you too can slurp a Solero on a Buckaroo.

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