Brexit's '˜challenge of a generation' to rural economy

The twin threats of Brexit and possible constitutional change represent the greatest challenges to the Scottish rural economy for more than a generation, an audience of the country's landowners was told yesterday.

'We are living in an era of huge volatility,' said Scottish Land & Estates chairman David Johnstone. Picture: Contributed

Speaking at the Scottish Land & Estates (SLE) spring conference, the organisation’s chairman, David Johnstone, said that businesses which had previously relied on core industries such as agriculture and forestry would have to face up to fundamental change – and demonstrate unprecedented creativity in order to survive.

• READ MORE: Farming news

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

He said: “We are living in an era of huge volatility and whatever the outcome of Brexit and the constitutional situation, change is inevitable.”

However, while he said that rural businesses themselves would have to lead the way, Johnstone stressed that government had a key role to play and warned that the rate of change in support measures would be key to giving the sector time to adapt.

“Over the years our rural economy has become dependent, some would say almost addicted, to the money that has come out of Brussels, and if that level of funding changes going forward, then we are going to, like any addict, have a period of withdrawal.

“Scottish agriculture is certainly not going to survive if the only option is cold turkey.”

While acknowledging that every change in agricultural policy in recent decades had been sold as an interim measure leading to lower support levels, he believed that with control coming back from Brussels, this time round the change away from direct support measures would be pushed through.

“Where there will still be funding available, we envisage that this is likely to be delivered in a different way, with support likely to be directed to the provision of public goods.”

Johnstone said his organisation believed that while local policies were best, there would be a requirement for some overarching UK policy framework to ensure that the whole country could comply with trade settlements – however, he emphasised that this should not be purely Westminster-led and should be based on an equal input from all administrations.

Meanwhile, SLE projects and research manager, Andrew Midgely, told the conference that the attitudes displayed by governments in the run-up to these discussions on post-Brexit farm policy would play a crucial role in how the debate played out in the longer term.

He said that while it appeared that, to date, the UK government had been “less than communicative” on how it proposed to address the issue, a careful balancing act was required from the politicians involved.

He said it was well recognised that the Scottish Government wanted to retain power over farm policy and budget in Scotland and was likely to push agriculture up the agenda as it viewed this as a flash point as powers were repatriated from the EU.

“It all comes down to how the discussions are approached – if the UK government thinks that it can simply set the agenda then this is likely to be highly antagonistic to the Scottish Government.”