Interview: Robert Graham, MD of Graham’s The Family Dairy

Robert Graham. Picture: submitted
Robert Graham. Picture: submitted
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“Ultimately, this is about the sort of country – society and economy – we want to become and believe that we can become.” It is a point well-made in the Sustainable Growth Commission report and one that resonates for Scotland’s future irrespective of politics or sovereign destiny.

Yet given the Scottish Government’s much-vaunted commitment to growing the economy – prioritising job-
creation and increased housing provision, whilst establishing a vision to cement food and drink as Scotland’s most valuable industry – the recent decision by Kevin Stewart,minister for local government and housing, to reject our proposed £40 
million investment to create a national dairy processing and research and development site at Stirling sends a clearly contradictory message.

The Scottish economy grew a minuscule 0.2 per cent in the first quarter of 2018, marginally above the UK as a whole but continuing what has been a run of weak expansion. Our prospects for longer-term growth are also under threat by Brexit. So, you can quite clearly comprehend why the thought of exiting a market that is around eight times larger than the UK’s is a serious concern for every sector – and is categorically what poses the most danger to our country’s prosperity.

Yes, the Scottish Government is investing to boost economic growth through its ambitious strategies, and direct investment into our cities and regions through growth and city deals, but it is not enough. The Scottish Government needs to work with us, the business community, and use its extensive powers to make sure it is supporting our productivity, investment and growth in Scotland because much of our country’s wider growth will come from individual businesses delivering their own ambitious plans.

With under one year until we leave the European Union, Scotland is approaching a critical juncture in safeguarding, and indeed strengthening, its economic resilience. Why at such a vital time would a proposal that delivers much-needed affordable homes and infrastructure, generates £65.3m GVA per annum into the Scottish economy and creates a total of 1,425 jobs, be refused?

The First Minister, at the most recent SNP party conference in Aberdeen, stressed that the Scottish Government “is moving Scotland forward. Standing up for what it believes in. Making tough decisions.”

The proof of that proclamation lies in the decisions that are made to promote prosperity and generational growth. Actions speak louder than words.

Our proposed Airthrey Green development – with plans submitted jointly with housing developer Mactaggart & Mickel Homes, and aiming to build on land between Bridge of Allan and Causewayhead – would have represented the single largest investment in the Scottish dairy industry in more than a generation and signified an unprecedented commitment to mobilising the country’s wider economic prosperity.

The challenges facing the dairy sector in Scotland have been well-publicised in recent years, and with so much uncertainty surrounding Brexit, the future feels an unsettling prospect for the farming sector. Our industry is incredibly reliant on free trade, and any tariffs that face us once we leave the EU could cause significant damage – especially if the World Trade Organisation’s tariff import levy of 36 per cent is applied to dairy products.

With over half of butter and cheese consumed in the UK imported, it’s little wonder Brexit’s impact for the UK dairy industry is being speculated to be as bad, if not worse, than Russia’s overnight ban of EU foodstuffs in 2014. The Scottish Government commissioned a review of the dairy sector in 2013, and Ambition 2025 sets out the target for Scotland to be “a nation producing over 1.6 billion litres of milk a year”.

Increasing domestic processing capacity will be the pipeline for delivering product innovation, skills development and improved Scottish exports – all of which are central to achieving this vision and building a resilient post-Brexit economy. Our competitors overseas are forging ahead, so it is extremely worrying that this opportunity has been allowed to slip through our fingers.

We need to plan long term and think bigger than we have been. I go back to the most pertinent and challenging question contained within the Sustainable Growth Commission’s report: what kind of nation do we want to be?

There is so much potential to build a progressive, inclusive economy – but it requires decisions in the national interest.

We need to be investing in Scotland – in jobs, training, affordable housing and our communities – now. Scotland has so much to offer. And in these uncertain and challenging times, we must embrace ambition and think big to secure Scotland’s future.