Andrew Arbuckle: Carving up the £1bn SRDP cake is no easy task for minister

Forestry is funded out of the same SRDP pot of money. Picture: Neil Hanna
Forestry is funded out of the same SRDP pot of money. Picture: Neil Hanna
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YOU would think it was the best job in the world spending £1 billion – but being cabinet secretary and having the next Scottish Rural Development Programme (SRDP) cash to distribute is a veritable minefield.

The first action you take, as the man in charge of rural affairs in the Scottish Government, is to complain that it is not more. Other European countries fare better with more in their rural development pot, so you blame the UK government for the reduction.

While £1bn is still a lot of cash, it was £1.2bn for the last settlement which ran from 2007 to the present day. In fact, the £1bn is still an estimate as the budget is not finalised but that is where current predictions are. Then even as you look at the £1bn bag of cash, it morphs into six smaller bags – one for each of the coming years up to 2020.

The money you are looking at covers the environmental and rural economy side of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) as opposed to the direct payments farmers get through their Single Farm Payment (SFP). As such, it covers a wide variety of spending options.

As far as farming is concerned, this is where Less Favoured Area support comes from and, even after a re-­jigging of the areas in 2016, the successor scheme of Areas of Natural Constraint will have to be supported from this kitty. In one swoop that removes about one-third of the cash.

Forestry grants also come out of this pot and, as cabinet secretary, you have supported the Scottish Government target of a further 10,000 hectares per annum of woodland planting, so that takes another bite out of your SRDP bag of cash. Currently the forestry figure is about £32 million per annum.

Crofting also has to be supported from the same source, so there is another leakage from what originally seemed a large sum of money.

Importantly, the New Entrants scheme, which has been promised in the next CAP, will also get its funding from this source – and with the verbal support you have already given, the cash for this will need to be substantial.

Agri-environment schemes are currently funded from this ever-decreasing pot of money. These will probably continue at least at present levels.

If you as cabinet secretary were to accede to the demands of the powerful environmental lobbyists, the balance of the money would disappear altogether. In fact, if you give these lobbyists first call on the money, the whole lot would probably be committed to environmental objectives.

As you sit in your ministerial office, you look up, your eye drawn to a notice in big bold lettering: “Do not annoy any of the electorate before September 2014 as we hope to win the independence referendum.”

By now, the sum to be allocated is much reduced and there are still a number of key Scottish Government objectives to be met. Schemes such as promoting the indigenous food sector, stimulating rural businesses, supporting local community groups, encouraging innovative schemes and continuing schemes such as Leader, which have done a lot of good work – all of them screaming out for money. All of them claiming to be deserving causes for even more support.

With your head in your hands and the notice on the wall hanging there ominously, you wonder how you can square the circle of wider demand and reduced cash.

There are a few possibilities. Within the farming community it is widely, although quietly, agreed that many of the Rural Priority awards in the last SRDP went to large businesses that would have carried out the projects anyway.

Another option, albeit one that might cause the notice on the wall to clatter down about your ears, is to transfer money from the direct payments farmers get into the general SRDP pot.

You are allowed under European Union proposals to do this. Up to 15 per cent of the direct payment cash could be transferred and that would give you another £60m-plus per annum. Then you have your lightbulb moment, as this is roughly the amount of direct payments currently slipping out the door to the so-called “slipper farmers”.

So there you have it. The overall amount of money going to working or active farmers will remain the same. Although with the move to area payments there will be the proverbial winners and losers. And you have another chunk of money to distribute under the SRDP. You look up at the notice on the wall and smile.