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June 3, 2009

Conflict over rural priorities

A row has broken out between Third Sector leaders and the farming lobby over the way Scottish Government distributes Rural Development Funding. Farmers leaders want the £500m in Rural Priorities money to be switched from general community-led projects to focus on those who are ‘actively farming the land’. This will be strongly resisted

A row has broken out between the farming lobby and voluntary sector leaders over the way Holyrood distributes rural development funding.

In March, the Scottish Government launched a review of the Scotland Rural Development Programme (SRDP) in order to determine how the fund could be best used to ease the impact of the recession on Scotland’s rural economy.

The fund, which is worth £1.6 billion between 2007 and 2013, is designed to target economic, environmental and social benefits.

Around £500 million is earmarked for bids from a wide array of organisations for projects aimed at boosting rural businesses and communities under the Rural Priorities scheme. Since the scheme was launched last year, more than 1,800 projects worth £125 million have been approved. These include improvements to community facilities such as town halls, community renewable energy projects, conservation projects and business support such as enterprise advice.

But now the National Farmers Union Scotland (NFUS) has called for the remaining Rural Priorities cash to be rolled into an SRDP pot earmarked for farming grants, in order to help farmers stave off the worst impact of the recession.

NFUS president Jim McLaren said the SRDP funding should be focused on those who are “actively farming the land” as that would be the best way to “serve rural Scotland and provide a much needed economic boost”.

But Norman Macaskill, head of rural policy at umbrella body the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, said he would be “very concerned” about any shift of community-based funding to agricultural support, as it would be contrary to the aims and objective of the SRDP.

“The fund was set up to provide a holistic and wide-ranging approach to rural development, and we agree with that principle,” he said. “We will defend the pot of money for communities.”

The Scottish Government has appointed Peter Cook, an agricultural economist, to head up the review, which is due to report this month.

A Scottish Government spokesman would not be drawn into the row. He said ministers recognised the importance of both direct funding grants for farmers and the cash earmarked for rural priorities. “Both are vital funding pots for rural Scotland,” he said.