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Scotland's Programme for Government

The Programme for Government was launched on 1 September, thus marking an important day in the Scottish political calendar. It outlines what the Scottish government will focus on from now until May 2021 – when Parliament dissolves, and an election is held to determine who will be the next party of government in Scotland.

For our purposes we will examine what the Scottish government will focus on for rural Scotland, which makes up 98 per cent of Scotland's land mass, and yet only 17 per cent live there. Of course, a lot of rural Scotland is uninhabitable, but there does remain a perception that an urban/rural divide is growing in terms of job opportunities, investment and focus.

Rural areas are measured by the size of each settlement – populations under 3,000. This category is then broken down further by the proximity of how close it is in driving distance to a settlement with a population of 10,000 or more. These categories are:

  • Accessible Rural Areas (within a 30-minute drive)
  • Remote Rural Areas (between 30 and 60-minute drive)
  • Very Remote Rural Areas (1hr+ drive)

The specifics of the rural definition means that the Scottish government prefer the question of rurality to be based on postcode. Take Aberdeenshire for example, there is an almost even split between urban and rural areas within the local authority, the same is true of Dumfries and Galloway, Perth and Kinross and the Scottish Borders. However, for most living in these local authorities these are rural areas with rural problems. Indeed, the only local authorities that are weighted on the rural side are, unsurprisingly, Na h-Eileanan Siar, Orkney Islands and the Shetland Isles. Defining rural is therefore not as easy as we would like. Despite 98 per cent of Scotland's landmass being rural, we cannot, nor should we, define everywhere as rural. However, to be as rigid as the statisticians in the Scottish government would like, means that areas that have rural problems might not be seen as rural in the first instance.

What are those rural issues? According to the stats rural Scotland struggles to access key services such as hospitals, dentists, post offices and banking services. Rural areas also have poor digital connectivity and a lack of travel connections – hence the dependency on cars. The rural economy is also heavily dominated by a small number of sectors - the agriculture, forestry, fishing and hospitality sectors are the biggest employers in rural areas.

The Programme for Scotland went someway to try and relieve these issues. The Government has once again committed full-fibre broadband to much of rural Scotland, a new local food strategy to help Scottish farmers, a rural migration pilot to attract skills; a new tourism strategy to aid the recovery post COVID-19, and improved access to healthcare.

These are positive focuses, however, as with everything, ambition must be met with delivery. For rural Scotland there seems to be nothing much that is new. Food and tourism strategies were already in place, digital connectivity has long been a focus of this administration and continues to be an issue, and there has long been an exodus of both people and skills in rural areas. COVID-19 does risk exacerbating these problems and for that reason the focus must be to make progress.

Yet, the complexities of rural Scotland have not been addressed. The rural sectors prioritised in the Programme for Scotland; farming, forestry and tourism will not help the diversification of the rural Scottish economy. It will not help to attract skills beyond those sectors, even if it coincides with a £2million Green Recovery Programme.

Rural communities will remember that just before the Summer recess we witnessed the Scottish government give way to the Green Party on mountain hare culling to get their Bill through parliament. During lockdown several rural businesses were left struggling when COVID-19 relief was refused, and of course we cannot forget the CAP payment fiasco in 2016. With a new payments system being introduced in 2021 it will require all of the Government's attention to make sure it works as it should. The Scottish government makes the right noises surrounding rural communities, but it is yet to be determined whether they will deliver on their ambitions.

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