Tories want rural communities to have the last word

THE Scottish Conservative Party's manifesto reflects the fact that, during the last parliament, several of its MSPs had strong links with farming and the countryside. Alex Fergusson is one of that number, though he is no longer an active farmer. He very much favours a policy for the countryside where there is less government interference.

He said: "We want a fresh approach so that rural policy is led by rural communities, rather than being imposed by government and other agencies. We also want to see farmers turn from price takers to price makers.

"A top priority for us is to give extra support to farmers in the marketplace as they struggle against the might of the supermarkets. We will strengthen the [supermarket] code of practice, encourage the formation of co-operatives through the work of the Scottish Agricultural Organisation Society, establish a public procurement unit to ensure that more public bodies purchase local produce and facilitate access to public-sector contracts by producers and producer groups."

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Scottish farmers currently receive close on 400 million each year through the single farm payment, which was at the heart of the 2003 reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy. However, this will be eroded through modulation, or the top slicing of payments with the funding directed at environmental measures.

The rate of modulation is set by Brussels. But individual member states and regions, have the option of setting higher rates on a voluntary basis. It was recently announced, much to the consternation of farmers, that the English rate will rise to 19 per cent by 2013, or shortly afterwards.

Fergusson believes this to be a misguided policy: "We will oppose any attempt to increase voluntary modulation, and would argue that, if we have to have it at all, then those who contribute to it should have the first option to benefit from it, preferably on a regional basis."

In common with the SNP and the Liberal Democrats, the Tories are keen to reduce the level of bureaucracy farmers are now lumbered with. On this front, Fergusson is extremely critical of the previous coalition in Holyrood: "It is regrettable that the Executive's stewardship of the countryside has resulted in unprecedented paperwork and government interference. We will tackle the red tape and regulation, which continues to absorb far too much time which could be much better spent. This is why we are committed to thorough reviews of SEPA [Scottish Environmental Protection Agency], Scottish Natural Heritage and the Forestry Commission, to ensure these bodies are working for, rather than against, the interests of Scotland's farmers. We will also seek to introduce an appeals system that is fair and balanced in its approach."

The encouragement of young entrants is another priority. The chosen route will be through freeing up the tenanted sector, where the Tories claim that recent legislation has been almost a total failure. New "starter pilot schemes" with an annual budget of 5m will also be introduced.

Apart from core farming policies, the Tories intend to create an "Affordable Homes Trust" with a budget of 100m to help people on to the housing ladder. Around 5m will also be available to support local schools in the countryside earmarked for closure, despite parental opposition.