Policy confluence – going with the flows

Joined-up policy, like a common language, often feels more like a dream than an aspiration. Kant said ‘Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made’, and it may be that silos are as inevitable as death and taxes.

But there are times when different strands of policy can flow together for a while and reinforce each other. The current debate over food, farming and land use is one of those times, with different policy discourses converging and an opportunity for a distinctive Scottish approach to emerge. Three different streams are starting to merge, each coming from a different source and tradition.

The headwaters of land reform are hundreds of years upstream. The concentration of power, privilege and control which comes with land ownership is an affront to the landless. The issue is at the heart of sovereignty and nationhood – if we are defined as a nation by our territory, how can so many of us have so little say about how that territory is shaped and managed?

This stream has been running faster and deeper in the last twenty years, and the next Land Reform Act is out for consultation. It would introduce among other things a public interest test when large swathes of land change hands, a requirement to produce and publish management plans, increased transparency and some modest restrictions on who can own land. This taps into a deep sense that all our land (and sea) should benefit all of us, that with the rights conferred by land ownership comes a responsibility to manage that land for the common good – and for future generations.

The second stream is just transition. Previous step changes in the political economy have seen people displaced and discarded. Scotland’s recent deindustrialisation is part of our living memory and we are still living through the consequences. There is a steely determination that the transition to a net zero, nature positive economy that the pains and gains are shared equitably (not just equally) – so that a greener country is also demonstrably a fairer country.

The Just Transition Commission is developing recommendations across many sectors. In their recommendations for energy and transport, it’s clear that there should be greater equity in terms of warmth and mobility, with home insulation and public transport enhanced. It’s also working on agriculture, a huge contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, It wants to see reformed support for farmers and crofters so they can still make a living while transforming the way they use their land.

The Commission notes: “The current pressures faced by many in the sector, because of rising costs of inputs, go to underline the urgent need to transform how we produce food for a fairer deal for producers, consumers, and the planet.” But there’s still some thinking needed about how food and nutrition – like warmth and mobility – can be distributed more fairly through a just transition. If at the end of the day the purpose of farming isn’t food for people, then what is it?

The third stream is CAP reform, a sluggish, brackish burn that stretches back at least 25 years. With the UK and Scotland leaving the EU, this too is gathering pace. Currently almost 90% of the farm subsidy is distributed purely on the basis of the amount and quality of land which is owned or farmed. There are no reciprocal obligations on the part of the farmer, no need to submit accounts or say how the money was spent.

This ‘agricultural exceptionalism’ has survived in the protected environment of an EU-managed funding scheme but looks increasingly frail in the harsh wind of domestic political choices and an imminent recession. Money for nothing – and money for those whose land-based wealth has grown sharply in recent years – is not politically sustainable. The new funding regime must embody a new contract between farmers, crofters and the public.

So, three policy improvements – a fairer distribution of our land and of the power to say how it’s used; an equitable access to warmth, mobility, food, good jobs and skills, as we navigate net zero; and a better return on investment of public money – are all for a while flowing concurrently in the same direction.

There’s an opportunity to draw power and ideas from each stream to drive a deeper change in how we use our land and nourish our people. We can learn from history – and then make some.

The following consultations are currently open: