Farming: Building blocks there but plans under construction

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Last week was tough. Marathon negotiating sessions in Europe are made no easier by their mangled use of the English language which seems to require the regular invention of new jargon to satisfy the complexities of the European Union.

When you hit phrases such as “it is in the landing zone” or “it is left in square brackets” coming through in translations, it takes a little while and a degree of guile to work out the first means “decided” and the second is “we are still arguing.”

However, as we now all know the politicians put enough into the landing zone to produce a political settlement on the next common agricultural policy (CAP) and the action moves closer to home with a large amount of devolved decision making.

I have this vision. It is a cartoon with a pile of stones in the centre and they are all marked. One has “coupled payments” written on it, another has ‘environmental policies” scribbled on its side, a third has a label stating “rate of change” and so on; each boulder representing a policy of the next CAP.

Observing this assortment of masonry and looking none too happy about it are a group of Scottish Government civil servants and politicians. They know they will have to construct a building out of the ruckle of stones.

And in the background a Scottish worthy is seen and the speech bubble from him asks, “are you going to mak a kirk or a mill oot o’ it?” and with all the flexibility devolved in the next CAP that is now the crux of the matter.

The gloomy looks on the faces of the civil servants shows they know they face a major task. The president of NFU Scotland remarked on this on his return from Europe where he had seen the tide flow towards more and more local decision making.

He feared meltdown in the civil service. Another observer commented that it would be akin to playing three dimensional chess which is a scary thought for me who struggles with the more common two dimensional game.

The problem for those working for the Scottish Government is, as I see it, two fold. One the one hand, they have a devilishly difficult piece of work to achieve in a tight timescale and on the other they may not have the numbers of people in place who are qualified to create such policies.

This will be largely new work for them as up till now they have been more concerned with policy implementation and, using a really inappropriate comparison, policy creation is a different kettle of fish altogether.

The politicians looking on in the same cartoon will be ultimately responsible for how and where they lay the stones making up the new building or CAP. Publicly they may welcome the devolved decision making but privately they had possibly hoped the decisions would be made elsewhere, leaving them in the glorious position of complaining about anything and everything that did not suit.

No doubt, they will still be able to generate a major moan over the reduced amount of money in the next CAP. Grandly, they will say: “We would have put more money in and made it bigger and better.”

They will also, and with some justification, moan that the CAP building in Scotland should be relatively bigger than it currently is within the UK. In fact this very point has been made but the farmers in the south – ie the English NFU – quickly made it clear they were not going to let a Scottish raiding party come down and loot their CAP.

The politicians will have a great deal of advice on how to put the Scottish CAP edifice together. In fact, they are already being inundated with various templates for it.

Farming organisations such as the NFU are obviously putting forward the view that the structure should be more of a food producing mill as food security and food production and exports will become increasingly important.

Even this approach has its pitfalls as one of the believed cornerstones of such a policy, “coupling support”, does not, according to a poll in a trade paper, have industry support.

Meanwhile environmental bodies such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds would like so see the Scottish Government’s CAP building blocks turned into a place of environmental worship with little song birds flying in and out of the church spire.

My view is that it will end up resembling neither a church nor a mill but in the best euro fashion a fudge between the two.