Taking Scotland Forward: Economy

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 31st May 2016.

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Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

If we are to build the Scottish economy, we need to recognise the differences between rural and urban economies. More than that, we need to recognise local challenges and opportunities. Too often, our economic development appears to hinge on a single approach that works in some areas but is actually ineffective, and sometimes damaging, in others.

We must understand that we cannot build the economies of remote rural areas by pursing urban approaches such as account management. That is effective for larger companies that need specialist intervention, but even those companies have told me that the support that is on offer is sometimes not what is required.

Support has to be suited to the needs of the business, not just to the needs of the enterprise company. Large companies seldom operate in remote rural areas, where there tend to be small—often one-person—businesses. If we are to help and encourage those businesses, we need to make sure that they can employ another person rather than looking to grow them as we would an account-managed company. However, the needs of our small companies are largely ignored. Often they are run by someone who has expertise in the product or service that they are providing but who has no knowledge of business practice and no networks to fall back on. Unless we recognise the contribution that they make and the fact that they are an untapped resource, we will fail our small rural communities.

All our communities need access to high-speed broadband, which is essential for business development. Sadly, remote areas are lagging way behind when they arguably have most to gain. Kate Forbes talked about e-health and e-education bringing things close to communities—those are examples of the services that could be delivered if communities had good access to broadband. In addition, businesses would be able reach untapped markets and deal with suppliers.

The lack of digital infrastructure is driving people from our remote rural communities, where good access would help with repopulation. I cannot stress enough the importance of the issue to rural economies. We need to set targets for coverage that are rural-proofed and which take on the need to expand coverage throughout rural communities.

We recognise the role of farmers and crofters, but we seldom, if ever, offer them support to grow their businesses. When its role was to support crofters, the Crofting Commission provided that assistance. That support function was moved to Highlands and Islands Enterprise, where it became assistance for crofting communities. However, crofting communities exist throughout the Highlands and Islands, and assistance to active crofters has therefore all but disappeared.

The same is true for other businesses that use natural resources. Such resources are there to be utilised for the benefit of the local economy. Our natural resources are second to none but we do little to exploit them for our benefit. Of course, we have to do that in a way that is sensitive to the environment—it is in no one’s interest to do otherwise—but we also need to use those resources to build local economies and create strong and sustainable communities.

I will leave aside for the moment the debacle of the common agricultural policy payments; we have already discussed that at some length this afternoon. However, we have already missed an opportunity to shore up our rural communities when designing the new scheme. The Scottish Government did not use the opportunity to level the playing field and sustain remote rural communities. It continues to pay eye-watering amounts to large producers, ignoring the quality of our smaller producers and not using the payments to their benefit. That is surely wrong. The payments are there to create a fair market. How can it be fair that the haves get more than the have nots? That accentuates, rather than negates, the disparity. Once the Scottish Government sorts out the current mess in the CAP system, it needs to look to the future and devise a new programme that will help small producers to develop and grow and give those who work under a geographical disadvantage the same opportunities as others have.

At a time of austerity—indeed, we have austerity plus in Scotland, with both our Governments cutting taxes and spending—we need more than ever to protect the most vulnerable in our remote rural communities, which are themselves extremely vulnerable. The centralisation of services to save money often sucks the life-blood out of our communities. That is not a good use of resources because it leads to those communities becoming more expensive to support.

If a community is not vibrant, how can it attract people to locate there? If a community cannot attract a GP, for example, it will have to depend on expensive locums, who cost four and five times more. That is simply wrong. We need to focus properly on those communities and help them to build resilience or we will always have to support them. Strong, resilient communities will need less support, and investing in them will provide long-term savings.

I am not just saying that rural economies are different. We need to recognise that all local economies have strengths and challenges, and we need to support them in a way that suits their needs.