Rural Scotland needs a voice - and not just for farmers

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Emma Cooper argues the importance of the Scottish Rural Parliament

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24th September 2018 by TFN Guest 0 Comments

The third Scottish Rural Parliament takes place this year, and I find myself once again juggling ‘the day job’ of leading a small but loud organisation, with the logistics and details of a three-day event for four-hundred people in a venue which is distinctly not purpose-built.

How I ended up being the primary organiser of such an event is a conversation for another day, but almost five years into my role, I thought it worthwhile to take a moment to reflect upon why we go to such an effort every two years.

If you conjure up images of rural Scotland, you are no doubt thinking of mountains and coast line, Highland cattle and wind-blown sheep, whiskey and black pudding, thick woollen jumpers and red-cheeked farmers in blue overalls. In other words, food, drink and farming.

Emma Cooper

Emma Cooper

In reality, 19% of our population lives in rural Scotland and the majority of those people are not working in those industries. In fact, only 3-4% of the rural GDP comes from agriculture, forestry and fishing, while 15% of mainly rural GDP comes from manufacturing (Understanding the Scottish rural economy). GVA grew in rural areas more than in urban areas between 2007 and 2015, yet we have poorer infrastructure, which implies to me that there is also greater potential for growth in rural Scotland.

When you think of rural Scotland, you may also be thinking of broadband subsidies, ferry subsidies, farming subsidies and, well, subsidies. These perceptions of rural Scotland are exactly why we need to ensure rural communities have a voice and are not viewed as one dimensional or a drain on the public purse, because the rural economy is not that straightforward and nor are subsidies, as we see in areas like transport.

Those of us who live on islands were able to access multi-journey passes at a discount before the recent ferry subsidy, Road Equivalent Tariff (RET), was introduced. RET - although welcomed by many in rural Scotland to boost tourism – has placed an excessive burden on related infrastructure and is subsidising visitors not islanders. We may now be the only country in the world where tourists are being subsidised rather than taxed to spend time in our most beautiful places.

The majority of concessionary bus pass use is in urban areas – there is ten times as much usage in Edinburgh than Orkney for example - because there aren’t bus services for people to use their passes on. This is a subsidy for urban areas which is not applicable to rural areas.

Fuel tax was introduced to reduce car use, an impossibility in rural areas where car ownership is essential because there is no public transport to get people where they need to go, when they need to go there. Fuel tax is an unfair tax on rural households which will not change behaviour, simply leave more households in poverty. Adding to that, the rural fuel rebate, or subsidy (5p per litre), in parts of rural Scotland often still leaves rural fuel costing more than in urban locations.

There are so many misconceptions about rural Scotland that policy-makers, often far removed from rural communities, need (and often welcome) ways to ensure decision-making is effective for all parts of Scotland and that support is equitable. The Scottish Rural Parliament brings together 350 people from across rural Scotland with decision-makers for that purpose. We are a minority voice, with 80% of the Scottish population concentrated in urban areas, and we therefore need other mechanisms for democratic decisions to be made equitably.

It is, of course, also an opportunity for great celebration and music, dance, food and drink weaves through the event making it exactly that – an event and not a conference. All are welcome to join us, and it’s free for most people to attend.

Emma Cooper is chief executive of Scottish Rural Action