In an interview for the Radio 4 programme, Costing the Earth, last week, I was asked to compare progress in establishing the new legal and governance framework across the four countries of the UK.
Drawing heavily on the analysis we produced at the beginning of the year, it was good to be able to report how each of the administrations were managing both the jeopardy and opportunity presented by Brexit.
It was particularly pleasing to be able to talk about the progress that Scotland had made in providing the legal basis for its new environmental watchdog to be called Environmental Standards Scotland. This was established through the Continuity Act which was passed before Christmas and which my colleague Isobel Mercer assessed in a blog here.
Yet, while Scotland is leading the way in some areas, it is clearly lagging woefully behind in others.
From an environmental perspective, leaving the EU Common Agriculture Policy was the most significant opportunity presented by Brexit Yet, as outlined in a recent letter from Scottish NGOs (including RSPB Scotland) to the Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy and Tourism Fergus Ewing, the Scottish Government has thus far failed to set a clear direction for land management policy and related funding that will tackle both climate change and the loss of nature. This is despite the fact that agriculture policy is recognised as the single biggest driver of decline in biodiversity in Scotland (as well as the UK, Europe and globally) and despite the fact that Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said in 2019, “The challenges facing biodiversity are as important as the challenge of climate change, and I want Scotland to be leading the way in our response.”
While other countries of the UK have clearly set out a direction of travel or even passed legislation setting out a future for farm support payments that address the nature and climate emergency, Scotland has not. This means uncertainty for all land managers and raises the question of why Scotland’s farmers should not be similarly rewarded for helping to protect the environment. There are, inevitably, some real hurdles to overcome in getting the right system in place including in England which has already secured the Agriculture Act, but it is concerning to see Scotland moving not just slowly but seemingly further aware from delivering for nature.
As the NGO letter to Mr Ewing states,
“In the 2021-2022 Scottish Government budget proposals, of the £585 million total budget for agricultural support, just 6% now supports the Agri-Environment-Climate Scheme. This marks a reduction in current funding available to farmers to tackle climate emissions and nature loss, at a time when they need support to be able to do more. Many currently in this scheme will no longer be eligible, which will be a hugely disappointing step backwards in our ability to contribute to nature and climate actions.”
As I argued yesterday, the UK Government has already committed to establishing legal targets to drive nature’s recovery (but the headline ambition needs to be on the face of the Environment Bill) and the European Union is also consulting on a new nature restoration law to do something similar. Even the flawed EU Common Agricultural Policy is being reformed with a much greater share of its large budget being required to address biodiversity loss and climate change. The Scottish Government has established a policy of dynamic alignment with the EU, aspiring to keep in step with EU laws with a view to a future independent Scotland being in a position to reapply for membership. Unless the Scottish Government changes course pretty quickly, its farmers and crofters could be disadvantaged in comparison to the other UK countries and our European neighbours.
*Image of Scottish Black Face sheep grazing on RSPB Oronsay courtesy of Amy Millard (rspb-images.com)
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