22 June 2011

Subject Debate: Taking Scotland Forward: Rural Affairs and the Environment

The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick): The next item of business is a debate on taking Scotland forward: rural affairs and the environment.

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The Minister for Environment and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson): Let me start by both congratulating those who made their maiden speeches today, excellent as they were, and thanking members for the few kind words that have been sent in my direction. I dare say that there are few enough such opportunities for me to hear kind words, so I will bask in the reflected glory for at least five minutes.

The Scottish Government has as its central purpose supporting sustainable economic growth, and we have a strong mandate to pursue that over five years. We wish to see rural areas empowered to support their communities and to contribute to a better Scotland, and I think that that captures the sense of the debate that we have had today. We will continue to work with the Parliament, listening to ideas from wherever they come and seeking to build consensus for all that we do. The early meetings that both the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Environment and I have had with our opposite numbers in other political parties speak to the reality of what we are doing.

Mike MacKenzie, in a particularly powerful contribution, invited us all round to his place for a wee refreshment. We will be round at the weekend, Mike, don’t you worry. In his short speech he referred to the economic powerhouse that rural areas can be. That captured an important point.

We spent a fair bit of time talking about the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009, which was par excellence an example of the Parliament working together to common purpose to deliver something that is truly world leading. We will listen to all the voices in the Parliament, as we did as we worked through the 457 amendments, which were in some cases amendments to amendments, to the Climate Change (Scotland) Bill.

The legacy paper that the previous Rural Affairs and Environment Committee left for the new committee makes an important point. It states at paragraph 52 that we should avoid

“focussing too narrowly on the ‘three Fs’ of farming, food, and fishing.”

Those are all important, of course, but at the core of the matter is what life in a rural setting is like and what contributes to enhancing that. It is not simply food, farming and fishing. It is a much wider agenda altogether.

I am afraid that I will be unable in the available time to deal with every point that came up in the debate. Clearly, we will return to many of them in committee. However, I will try to deal with some of them.

Sarah Boyack talked about public food procurement, which is worth about £130 million in the public sector. We have supported small and medium-sized enterprises in particular to make it easier for them to bid for contracts. We absolutely agree that local businesses should work with the local public sector. It is important that that happens. In particular, through the climate challenge fund, we have provided £2.5 million to 39 organisations to support local food and grow-your-own projects. Indeed, I visited one such project at Letham in Fife, where I received a basket of the most wonderful vegetables—my wife almost wanted me to drive back to the south of Scotland to bring some more home. I therefore declare an interest in good-quality local food and its consumption, not just personally but across the board.

We certainly want to connect rural Scotland to everywhere. One reason why, 2000 years ago, the Roman empire was more successful than the Greek one was that the Romans had good communications. In fact, they could send messages from Londinium to Roma in six hours by a system of hilltop signalling. That underpinned 400 years of success for the Romans. Today, high-speed broadband will be equally important in the success of Scottish rural businesses.

Sarah Boyack referred to flooding. We have spent some six times what the previous Administration did on flooding interventions, so I think that our record is worth looking at. The member also referred to allotments. I am delighted that I was able in my previous ministerial role to visit at least two allotment sites that we supported—in Huntly and Crieff. Electric vehicles were mentioned, too. We have been part of a successful Scottish consortium to secure £30 million for the plugged-in places initiative sponsored by the UK Government. A great deal is happening indeed.

I welcome back Alex Fergusson. In the committee this morning, I nearly referred to him as Presiding Officer, so familiar a face has he been in that position of authority. We will now treat him as an equal and, when he speaks on farming, we will listen carefully to what he has to say. There is considerable sympathy for his view that form filling is an area in which we should continue to revise and improve—it is important that that happens.

As Alex Fergusson heard in the committee this morning, the long-run picture on the area of Scotland that is afforested is unlikely to be changing much. We wish to increase the size of the area, but we see year-on-year fluctuations because some years are more intensive for harvesting than planting while others are the other way round.

While I remember, it is worth reminding members that it is our target to have broadband all over Scotland by 2020.

David Torrance, in his maiden speech, talked about local food. With great pleasure, I visited the Food Train in Dumfries in my previous role. That is very important indeed.

Helen Eadie touched on the supergrid and the smart grid technologies. They are very important, particularly the smart grid. I was talking at the environment council yesterday to several other European environment ministers about work that is happening on smart grid. We need standards, because the smart grid can deliver right down to individual consumer devices. For example, it could protect heart and lung machines or dialysis machines installed in domestic houses, so that, if there is a power shortage, the deep freeze would be switched off for a few hours but the dialysis machine would not. A lot of work is going on, and we are pleased that the European Union made its first visit on the subsea grid to Scotland, recognising the importance of Scotland in the provision of renewable energy.

Mark McDonald focused on services in rural areas and talked about the Udny community wind turbines. It is important that anyone, including any community, wishing to establish developments such as wind turbines engages with the communities that will be affected by their presence, gets consent and momentum in favour and does not take consent for granted. I am afraid to say that there have been one or two examples when that has not been done.

Food and drink are vital, as is a fair deal for producers. Mark McDonald talked about exports and mentioned Dean’s of Huntly. If I was looking at my constituency, I would of course prefer to talk about BrewDog, which now has a successful export industry.

Many members touched on the report on proposals and policies. We will report on progress on implementing that in the not-too-distant future.

There were a few comments on housing. In 2009, the median house price was £160,000 in remote and rural areas, £173,000 in accessible rural areas and £128,000 in the rest of Scotland. That shows the attractiveness of rural areas for housing—people want to move there.

I have barely scratched the surface of what was covered in the debate. Rural affairs and the environment are a wide-ranging Government portfolio, and the speeches from across the chamber, all of which were worth listening to, reflected that. I will deal quickly with three issues.

The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick): Minister, you must wind up.

Stewart Stevenson: We will support communities that want to control their future, we will promote food and drink and we will drive down emissions. That is how we will take Scotland forward, leaving a greener Scotland than the one that we have borrowed from our children and grandchildren.

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