Following the Money – a view out to 2027

At the end of May, the Scottish Government published a ‘Resource Spending Review’1, presenting summary spending proposals for the next five years. Although these are no more than an outline, they give an early hint of the likely pattern of priorities and expenditure extending the historical analysis of previous posts2 into the future. What does this imply for rural land management in Scotland, and in turn for our natural world?

The spending review does not drill down to the level of detail of previous posts (‘Level 3’ in the jargon). But the Level 2 data presented indicate a broadly ‘flat cash’ outlook for the £1bn or thereabouts of annual expenditure examined in this series of posts. Making comparisons with the published figures from previous years isn’t easy; this new publication addresses only recurrent annual expenditure. A separate document3 sets out projections for SG capital expenditure to 2026. Trends in capital investment tend to be harder to see because the annual totals are more ‘lumpy’ as major projects come and go. However, taken together, the recurrent and capital figures are broadly comparable to the budget and spend figures from previous years4.

As we can see only too well, the next few years will present challenges. Prices are rising faster than for many years; if the prices affecting rural land management were to rise at 10% per annum over the period, these funds would lose about one third of their current spending power over five years. Set in the broad context of the outlook for rural land management, that represents a big reduction in Scotland’s capacity to tackle the ‘biodiversity crisis’, somewhat at odds with the accompanying rhetoric (“…the Scottish Government’s overarching ambition to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss…”, “…delivery of ambitious programmes focused on nature restoration and addressing biodiversity loss…” and so on). So how might this play out in practice?

These documents concede a growing disconnect between ambition/ need and the capacity /action possible with the public funds expected to be available (…”government investment on its own will not be sufficient….private and third sector investment will be criticalwe have set strong expectations on public bodies and public services to work effectively together and with the private and third sectors using the totality of resources available to improve outcomes….). This pragmatic approach unavoidably requires frank understanding of both the public and private objectives pursued through such collaboration. We have become used to transparency and open access to information about the work of public bodies, often contrasting with ‘commercial-in-confidence’ restrictions where private interests are involved. We need a way to navigate this boundary respecting personal privacy while at the same time tracking the wider public interest.

There’s the beginnings of an appreciation of some unintended consequences, for example in the arena of ‘rewilding’. Growing comment and controversy has emerged around the entry of so-called ‘green lairds’ into the rural land market in pursuit of carbon offsets5. Consistent with SG urging for greater public/ private collaboration, Forestry and Land Scotland has begun to promote ‘carbon offset partnerships’ 6 “…Corporate partnerships will play an important part in our future. We bring together private funding and public land to tackle the Climate Emergency and biodiversity crisis side by side….”. Recent publications by the Land Commission for Scotland7 and Scotland’s Rural University College8start to explore the implications even within this one dimension of the wider rural land management ‘landscape’: “…Natural capital buyers and voluntary carbon markets are driving significant and rapid changes in the land use sector…These trends create risks for markets, land managers and rural communities…..Options [are explored] for reducing risks and enhancing positive impacts of natural capital investment...”.

Another much larger emerging issue is the replacement of previous EU Common Agricultural Policy payments – around half of annual support for rural land management in Scotland. Steady progress in Scotland to develop alternatives has yet to yield firm proposals9, but those emerging for England have become controversial with recent publication of a ‘strategy’ implying a low priority accorded to caring for nature; again the rhetoric does not seem to match the capacity for corresponding action.

The SG spending review also recognises the limits imposed by staff numbers, once again revealing a mismatch of rhetoric “…a high-performing public sector continues to make a vital contribution within Scotland’s economy, environment and society….” and reality “…A broad aim to return the total size of the devolved public sector workforce to around pre-COVID-19 levels by 2026-27, through effective vacancy and recruitment management…”. Specifically for rural land management, there are no explicit proposals to improve capacity (Section 2.5) despite “…Experts agree(ing) that public spending now to address the climate (and biodiversity) crisis delivers future benefits which far outweigh the costs today…”. The review reveals, at best, a flat cash projection for paybill. This will drive a continuing decline in staff numbers, perhaps offset to some extent by ‘efficiency’, ‘digital transformation’ and restructuring: “…seeking to work collectively, with common purpose, breaking down delivery silos and efficiently using the totality of available resources within the constraints
we face

Looking ahead, there will be value in trying to place forthcoming spending and associated policy announcements in a context that confirms their scale and significance as a contribution to matching the Scottish Government’s overall ambitions. Disentangling and reconciling potentially dissimilar public and private interests seems bound to present some additional, perhaps novel, challenges – constructive tension, anyone?