A New Rural Economy for Scotland
BELLA: You are taking part in the SEDA’s ‘Six Conversations’ series A New Vision for Land Use – in the section covering a New Rural Economy. The series has been cross-cutting and generalist in its approach – which seems appropriate given the challenges we face at this particular time. Is that an approach you welcome?
From a personal perspective this approach suits me down to the ground, with such a broad research portfolio this is the approach I generally find myself taking anyway. In regards to the challenges we face we need the full range of ideas, discussion, solutions to be able to think about taking on things like climate crisis and ecological crises. Whilst there’s a lot of very good work going on a the coal face it’s good to take a step back and try and understand these from for example a societal perspective, rather than just ecological or climate. One of the problems within conservation for example is there’s too many ecologists and not enough social scientists. Society got us into this mess, we’re the ones who need to get us out of it.
BELLA: One of the main aims of this session is to recognise the need to reverse the long-term decline in rural population. How should we begin to do that? What new job opportunities and what infrastructure, including housing, might support such regeneration?
The simple answer is homes, jobs, and connectivity, both physical and digital. Perhaps with a slight change depending on where we are in rural Scotland. Here in Caithness for example you would probably put employment first, Dounreay built a lot of houses over the years but with the site winding down over the next 10 years employment will be the key issue. As you travel further west, the real limiting factor there is housing. The way the world is moving, especially after this paradigm shift of the pandemic, is that remote working will become a lot more normal, digital connectivity is therefore key. Again, to use a Caithness example, we lost out on recent work for an offshore windfarm off our coast because our airport had no scheduled flights. The company chose for that work to go further south because it was easier to get workers there despite it being further away from the wind farm on a vessel. So we also need that physical connectivity.
BELLA: land ownership seemed conspicuous by its absence in these sessions. Is this the elephant in the room, or a sideshow that would have dominated to no real effect?
I think it has been implicit throughout the conversations from the range of speakers to the topics being discussed. I wouldn’t be too put out if speakers tried to take on the land question a bit more but I understand that it benefits some to focus on management rather than draw attention to ownership. I suspect overall that the conversations have benefited from steering away from it and as you say not getting bogged down on land question. On that note however, how many times has independence been mentioned? We’ve had close to ten hours of discussion now about how we reimagine our future in Scotland and I can’t remember hearing independence heard once. That’s actually been quite refreshing.
BELLA: sometimes this debate is divided between those wanting “re-wilding” and those wanting “re-peopling”, but others think these don’t have to be in binary competition. What’s your view?
There doesn’t need to be a binary choice here. Rewilding and repeopling have both been enjoying more prominence in discussion but it’s taken time for everyone to settle into these conversations from what, on the surface, might appear as contradictory aims. My background obviously leads me firmly to the repeopling camp and I’ll admit I came to the discussion pretty sceptical on rewilding. But once spent some time talking, thinking, and debating with proponents of rewilding, I’m more comfortable defining myself as rewilder, albeit with some reluctance at being associated with some of the main proponents.
My interpretation of rewilding, in a Scottish context, doesn’t equate wilder with less or no people. Any repeopling proposal I work on has environmental restoration at its heart and there’s a lot of discussion in the rewilding community talking about the importance of social and economic benefit. So I think at least at a discussion level we’re getting better. You also have people like Jeremy Leggett working on rewilding and repeopling at a very real level and community landowners delivering on environmental initiatives well beyond what other more traditional landowners are doing.
Where we might see some conflict is when re-peopling initiatives get that bit more real. In a north Highland sense, a lot of the areas we’re talking about repeopling are now perceived as areas of wild land because of shifting baseline syndrome. They’ve been empty for long enough that people think this is how they’ve always been. So there’s perhaps some friction to come when we start talking about the reintroduction of people to these landscapes which certain sections of society now perceive as spaces explicitly for nature.
BELLA: what’s your view of tourism and over-tourism in the highlands? It seems to be a driver of housing scarcity and deplete and erode local services? How can we diversify so we don’t have such a one-dimensional rural economy?
It’s easy for me to talk a fairly critical view as I don’t depend on tourism for my livelihood and we also live on a bit of the North Coast 500 with comparatively good roads, housing, and services. But it doesn’t take long travelling to other areas of the Highlands to see the impact under-resourced tourism, or over tourism is having. In many cases we’ve got ahead of ourselves in extracting from the tourist industry without reinvesting but there’s a lot of externalities so who does that investment? A tourist tax seems like a fairly sensible approach to me, if delivered in a sensible manner.
In regards to diversification I’m a proponent of utilising our natural resources better, not just exploiting landscape for the benefit of tourists. Energy is one area I’m pretty comfortable at promoting. Highland is Scotland’s renewable powerhouse producing about a quarter of Scotland’s renewable electricity, well beyond any other area. We produce over four times as much renewable electricity as we use and send it south, often with a lot of the non-climatic benefit. We have a moral obligation to send that power south to meet the demand of our urban centres, but we also should be using some of it closer to home to promote sustainable industry and benefiting more from the generation of that power we do send south. A shift to net-zero can put rural Scotland front and centre of a ‘green new deal’ but that obviously needs to be rural proofed to make it work for us. There’s some interesting pieces of work out there but it doesn’t take long to realise they’re approaching the question with a Central Belt bias.
BELLA: different sectors and geographic areas have been hit by the pandemic in different ways, how has it effected rural Scotland and how should we be looking to ‘recover’?
The pandemic has hammered rural areas, like the Highlands, which have been over reliant on tourism. You just have to look at the universal credit numbers here. The pandemic has probably highlighted issues we all knew were coming anyway in respect to the climate crisis in regard to sustainability of certain industries. The problem is that the bounce back from the pandemic will exacerbate these challenges further, we saw it last summer with the rush to rural Scotland. But can you blame people, both business owners wanting to cash in after an incredibly difficult period and people who have perhaps been stuck to a very small geographic area for a long time. As we look to recovery we need to look at the sustainability; environmental, economic, social, and cultural, of this recovery. We need the support of government and agencies here too, and we all just need to give each other a little room here, it’s been a hugely difficult 12 months.
BELLA: one consequence of the lockdown has been people “buying up” houses in the highlands as “retreats” exacerbating an existing housing crisis. What should be done about holiday and second homes?
There’s pretty sensible suggestions around letting communities control how much housing is put over to the tourist industry via planning, but there’s also just a fundamental need for more and better social housing. When were the last council houses built in some of these areas? Access to land, as bonkers as that sounds, is a real issue as well as financing. I would prefer to see communities owning the land as it’s a proven route to making land available for housing. There’s also a case to be made for rolling out modular housing, built in the region with local sustainable materials, at scale to pull that cost down alongside access to land. We can build on a thousand years of architectural development in the region, training a local highly skilled workforce to work on the amazing range of existing buildings in the area, a skillset which is entirely needed to shift existing housing to net-zero whilst maintaining that cultural heritage.
BELLA: you’ve been quite outspoken about the need for industry to return to the highlands, and (rightly) reject the notion of the area as “unspoilt” etc etc etc. But do you have a threshold to that view or a set of criteria for what might be appropriate?
To refer back to an earlier point a lot of this is about energy for me. This could be burgeoning sectors like data, hydrogen, and advanced manufacturing at an appropriate scale, or novel approaches to more traditional industries like food production in glass houses. We talk about adding value to products like timber and agricultural produce closer to home, but we talk less about adding value to electrons right here on our doorstep. There’s areas where we’re actually doing pretty well here, if you think about how well the Inner Moray Firth is capitalising on the transition from oil and gas to renewables with the likes of the Port of Cromarty Firth and Global Energy’s Nigg Yard. Why have these places succeeded where others like BiFab have failed? Investment. We’ve seen £100m of both public and private cash invested in the Cromarty Firth in the last ten years to position the area as the best place to build out offshore renewables. That’s been the catalyst to attract assembly and operations work which is now looking like the bases for starting serious advanced manufacturing and capture a pipeline of billions of pounds over decades. Kishorn in Wester Ross is another ‘awakening giant’ from the 70’s oil boom transitioning into renewables.
This perhaps hints at where I am comfortable seeing development at this scale. A gigawatt sized electrolyser at somewhere like Nigg, absolutely, Forsinard no. The Sutherland Spaceport is probably where we get pretty close to the line for me but we have to weigh up the pros and cons and the pros win out for me. I spent a lot of time looking out over Ben Hutig as a bairn and it was incomprehensible to me how someone who wasn’t interested in crofting or tourism could live there, now this opportunity has opened up and it makes the idea of living and working in that area as a young professional, with a young family, very real.
We’ve talked about this before, whether we need to look at terminology like net-zero industrialisation or ecoindustrialisation. There’s a fundamental need for it in a practical sense but does naming it that way run the risk of greenwashing? But yes, let’s industrialise, sympathetically to the region, to meet our environmental obligations and match those to rectify the social and economic challenges we have here in the Highlands.
BELLA: Thank you.
The final session of the Six Conversation series will be on ‘A Story for the Future’ with Chris Dalglish, Mairi McFadyen and others. Details here.
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