BEFORE devolution, a parliament and an Executive, Scotland had, among other things, a department of agriculture. Now it has an environment and rural affairs department.
But that should fool no-one, says a report from the Institute of Policy Research published today: "The rural affairs label for the new department is a misnomer. It is a fig leaf for an essentially unreconstructed agricultural department."
The report by what is probably the UK’s leading centre-left policy group goes on: "If anything, agricultural sectoralism has become more entrenched in Scotland and Wales since devolution."
Farmers might not agree that they are getting special treatment. Representatives for environmental, conservation, tourism and other rural business groups might.
But the report’s authors - professors Neil Ward, School of Geography, Leeds University, and Phil Lowe of the Centre for Rural Economy, Newcastle University - are certain. They say that even before devolution, rural affairs were handled differently with different priorities in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
That was indicated clearly, they say, by rural white papers for the separate countries which were drawn up in 1995. The paper for Scotland had the primary aim of ensuring that "Scotland’s identity as a nation is enhanced".
The English version was to "conserve the character of the countryside". The Scottish and Welsh documents were preoccupied with how to sustain rural communities, the English one with sustaining the countryside "as a national asset". Ward and Lowe conclude that this is a useful benchmark against which to set what has happened since devolution: "Devolution has led to the establishment of new institutions in the devolved administrations and these have titles that suggest a broadening of approach from more narrowly sectoral agricultural departments to more holistic and territorial departments of rural development or rural affairs."
That is misleading: "The relatively greater importance of the farming industries in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland compared to England has meant the continued dominance of agriculturally-oriented approaches to rural development."
In short, they suggest that NFU Scotland still carries most of the clout as far as the Scottish Executive’s Environment and Rural Affairs Department - to give its full title - is concerned and they give examples.
One is resistance to modulation. The Prime Minister, if he has time, and his minister for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Margaret Beckett, approve of modulation. They see it as the top-slicing of farm production subsidies - 2.5 per cent now, rising to 4.5 per cent by 2006 - to be used for rural development in general.
They see that as an important step towards dismantling the amazingly complex and expensive European Union common agricultural policy and agree with the recent recommendation of Sir Don Curry’s committee that modulation should be increased to at least 10 per cent by 2004 and increased later to 20 per cent.
Farmers, unsurprisingly, disagree. Jim Walker, NFU Scotland president, said that Sir Don’s remit was for England only. His modulation recommendation showed "a failure to understand devolution," said Walker, not least because farming and rural strategies had already been drawn up by the devolved administrations.
The significant point about that, say Ward and Lowe, is that Ross Finnie, Scotland’s minister for rural development, agreed with the NFU that whatever percentage of modulation is applied, then the money - which is matched by the Treasury - goes back to farming in some other way.
Similarly, they conclude that the consultation process for application of the EU’s rural development regulation in Scotland left "several rural and environmental organisations bitter and disillusioned" and a final plan which has "a narrow scope and strongly agricultural focus".
Ward and Lowe say that even the handling in Scotland of last year’s foot-and-mouth epidemic - seen by almost everyone as more efficient than in England - can be traced at least partly to the strength of representation enjoyed by farming and "the weakness of the representation of non-farming rural interests".
The control of the epidemic within three months in Scotland was also helped by being almost apolitical and "the evident knowledge within the Scottish Executive of the local complexities of Scottish agriculture compared with their counterparts in London", the report says.
Some of the report’s conclusions might come as news to Scottish farmers with their inbuilt tendency to see themselves as a persecuted minority. But an outside view can be instructive. There could also be lessons for DEFRA and the Westminster government as Ward and Lowe conclude: "Devolution has brought into sharper focus the rural/agricultural version of the English question: what is English (as distinct to British) agricultural and rural policy?"
They suggest that the answer to that could mean the development of a more regional English rural policy - along the lines of the Scottish model?
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Sunday 19 May 2013
Temperature: 10 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North
Temperature: 9 C to 20 C
Wind Speed: 7 mph
Wind direction: West