Crofting has a special place in the cultural heritage of Scotland, and it lies at the heart of many of Scotland’s rural communities. Without the crofting sector, much of rural Scotland would not be the place that we have all come to know and love.
I am pleased to say that crofting continues to contribute to the sustainability of remote and rural communities. That is partly as a result of the support and attention that the Scottish Government and its predecessors have provided in the past and are providing now.
Credit goes primarily to the crofters themselves. In October last year, I gave a speech at the Scottish Crofting Federation’s event called “Celebrating the spirit of crofting”, at which we celebrated the commitment, passion, determination and fortitude that is shown by a very special community of people that is unique to Scotland—the crofting community.
When last I addressed the chamber on crofting more than two years ago, I took heart from the fact that the Crofting Commission was moving on from some testing times that had been challenging for a number of crofting communities. Although the Crofting Commission has faced some challenges, I am pleased to report that work continues to be undertaken by the commission’s staff and board to improve the way in which it undertakes its regulatory business.
We are already seeing the fruit of that work. Since 2018-19, the commission’s residency and land use team has resolved 130 breaches of duty, 28 per cent of which resulted in the crofter taking up residency or assigning their croft. Since March this year, we have seen an increase in the number of common grazings committees that are in office.
The Crofting Commission and its board have set improvement of turnaround times as their top priority for the coming year. They are prioritising front-line regulatory staff and developing plans for how to achieve that. For example, on the commission’s website, comprehensive information has been provided to inform crofters, before they decide how to frame an application, of the kinds of issues that are likely to cause delay. The commission has simplified its handling of general enquiries, thereby reducing the typical response time from 10 weeks to less than two weeks.
The next phase of its plans includes providing more information online, reviewing the processes for contested cases, enhancing in-house information technology systems, and engaging with Scottish Government colleagues to identify further opportunities for streamlining processes. In addition, the commission has agreed to work with crofters, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and the Scottish Land Commission on developing its thinking about the long-term reform of crofting legislation.
There have been a number of other positive developments in crofting, so I will take this opportunity to update members on some of the successes of the past two years and to set out how the Scottish Government plans to continue to improve prospects for crofters and crofting communities.
I also take this opportunity to update members on progress towards crofting legislation reform. Members will be aware of the work that has been done to date to assist in developing proposals for legislative change. I am committed to continuing preparations for a crofting bill that garners consensus and cross-party support. Members can be assured that my officials continue to work on reform of crofting legislation. As I have said before, such changes must be of benefit to crofters and crofting communities. It is important that the bill be focused. I have therefore asked officials to work with stakeholders to identify five to 10 priority changes that they would like to see in legislation.
Members and stakeholders alike can be reassured of my commitment to crofting legislative reform. I look forward to our continuing combined efforts to achieve that aim. Given the uncertainties around Brexit and the impact that it might have on resources and parliamentary time, I am not in a position to commit to the introduction of legislation during the current parliamentary session, but the approach that I have outlined will ensure that I will be in a position to do so if the opportunity arises.
Government is also committed to supporting people to remain on and to bringing people back to the land, thereby re-peopling our rural and remote rural populations and sustaining our fragile Highlands and Islands communities. Crofting contributes to the maintenance and enhancement of landscapes and habitats through low-impact, high-nature-value agricultural activity in areas that would otherwise be neglected.
What has the Government been doing to support crofting? In the past financial year alone, the Government approved and provided croft businesses with more than £46 million through a range of schemes, including the basic payment scheme and greening, the less favoured areas support scheme, the agri-environment climate scheme, the croft house grant, the crofting agricultural grant scheme, and the sheep and beef schemes. In addition to that £46 million, we have the bull stud farm at Knocknagael in Inverness, which offers subsidised rates for crofters to hire health status bulls.
We also provide crofters with subsidised veterinary support. In addition, crofters can access a bespoke subscription service that is offered by the farm advisory service, which provides discounted fees for consultancy services. More than 2,000 crofters benefit from that subscription, through which they access advice on animal husbandry, cropping, grassland production and much more.
There are also the forestry grant schemes, many of which are suitable for crofting businesses, and there is LEADER, which has helped to fund many croft-based projects.
Therefore, as members can see, the Scottish Government is committed to investing in and supporting crofting and crofting activities. Key to that is enabling more people to live on and work their land. Since 2007, we have approved £20 million in croft house grants for croft housing, which have helped to build and improve more than 960 homes for crofters and their families. Let us take the example of the active crofting family of George Reid and his partner Janice in the village of Taynuilt, who have a herd of 17 suckler cows at Brough croft. With the help of a croft house grant, that young family have managed to add two bedrooms and a utility room to their existing one-bedroom house. By continuing to support families who would not be able to live in the remote and rural parts of Scotland or to work their crofts without grant funding, we help to strengthen our crofting communities.
Allied to that, crofters can also access the Scotland self-build loan fund, which offers loans of up to £175,000 to help with construction fees for self-build projects. That scheme can be used in conjunction with the croft house grant scheme, which offers grants of up to £38,000.
However, I recognise that there is always more to be done to ensure that we create the conditions for our crofting and rural communities to grow and thrive. Attracting new entrants to crofting is critical to its future. With new entrants and youth come new practices, innovation and an enthusiasm that energises the sector. We all know that crofting is far more than just a form of land tenure. To class it as such would be to miss how and why it has endured. For many people, it is a way of life, and it needs a blend of experience and youth.
In 2018, there were more than 200 new entrants to crofting, more than a quarter of whom were aged 40 or younger. This year, we have already seen more than 90 new entrants. However, more can be done. My officials are currently working with stakeholders to develop a new entrants project that will provide the necessary guidance and support to create opportunities for new entrants. One of the issues that are to be tackled will be succession planning. The new entrants project will form but one element of the national development plan for crofting, which will be published in the coming 12 months.
Crofting needs to be underpinned with the right framework to address future needs. The national development plan will set the long-term strategic direction for crofting, and will highlight the core elements that are necessary to ensure that crofting remains at the heart of our rural and remote communities. The plan, which will be discussed further at the October crofting stakeholder forum, will contain the following outcomes and methods, which are a blend of what we want crofting to achieve and what is needed for crofting to reach its full potential: population retention and rural cohesion; the creation of opportunities for new entrants; co-ordinated public sector promotion of crofting; economic opportunity and growth; environment and habitats; and regulation.
While we continue through this period of uncharted business, the Scottish Government remains firmly committed to the future of crofting. The Government is proud of our heritage in crofting and is committed to working together with crofters in the shared desire to secure that future.
The key factor when it comes to the resilience and success of crofting is its people. We need to keep people on the land, and to support them to live productive and sustainable lives. Traditional crofting has a role to play in our ambition to re-people the Highlands and Islands, but it is also important to encourage modern approaches to crofting and diversification into such things as renewable energy projects, tourism, woodland and beekeeping. By enabling innovative methods of working the land and utilising our landscape and natural environment, we will create sustainable crofting communities for future generations.