Crowding out – the confused landscape of Scotland’s public bodies

This reference page is a work-in-progress – keeping track of the meandering kaleidoscope of public bodies overseeing rural land management in Scotland, their purpose and achievements, feels much harder than it should be. This page offers a brief overview, which will be updated from time to time.

Version control

CURRENT V1.6 – 5 April 2024 – reflecting the latest Scottish Government Directory of Public Bodies

V1.5 – 19 September 2023 – various minor updates

V1.4 – 27 May 2022 – Update entries for OEP/ESS

V1.3 – 1 February 2022 – Add Visit Scotland to Other Bodies section

V1.2 – 14 January 2022 – Other bodies section updated

V1.1 – 15 January 2021 – Forestry section amended

V1.0 – 6 October 2020

The traditional approach to rural land management is sectoral – farming, forestry, conservation, recreation and so on – each with its own suite of public, private and representative organisations. Under scrutiny, this apparent simplicity quickly unravels. Most of the relevant bodies have interests beyond rural land management, for example into the marine environment or broader economic development and planning. To make matters even more perplexing, some of the organisation names we are familiar with are not strictly separate bodies, but rather convenient shorthand ‘trading names’ for various integral parts of the UK or Scottish governments. While others are legal entities distinct from government itself, they are staffed by civil servants (who share one single UK government employer) or depend on centrally-provided services, especially IT. Many are listed in a Scottish Government ‘National Public Bodies Directory’1 which categorises especially ‘executive agencies’ (eg Scottish Forestry), ‘executive non-departmental public bodies’ (eg NatureScot) and ‘non-ministerial offices’ (eg Environmental Standards Scotland). I haven’t included local councils, or health bodies, public bodies which have very limited influence over rural land management.

Any organisation, public or private, must be a ‘legal person’, able to make contracts, employ staff, own assets and so on2. The Government forms a single such entity, while ‘non-departmental public bodies’ (NDPBs, such as the National Park Authorities) are established by statute as distinct entities with clearly stated roles and responsibilities. Moving into the increasingly grey area between public and private, a common legal framework is an entity defined as a Company Limited by Guarantee (in which any profits are not distributed to Directors or shareholders). The lines of accountability for such bodies tend to be less transparent than for a public body in the strict sense (for example beyond the scope of Freedom of Information legislation). A full private limited company is rare, although one might be established by government or a public body for specific special purposes.

So, always recognising that these arrangements are never quite so neat and tidy, the key sectors nevertheless seem an obvious way to structure this summary.

Farming

DAFS (from 1961) – SOAFD (from 1990) – SERAD (from 2000) – SEERAD (from 2002) – currently RPID.

Around two thirds (20,000 square miles) of Scotland is farmed3, and the government support for food production (more than £500m per annum) is large enough in scale to drive most farmland management decisions. So farming is clearly the largest single influence on rural land management. At the time of writing, this financial support is disbursed by the Scottish Government Rural Payments and Inspections Division (RPID), part of the Agriculture and Rural Economy Directorate currently showing online as ‘Rural Payments and Services’4.

Early in the last century, there was the Board of Agriculture, which became the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland (DAFS) in 1961, one of several departments of the pre-devolution Scottish Office. From the 1990s, this went through successive name changes; from 2007, the Scottish Government moved away from ‘departments’ to create a more integrated structure. As a result, farm policy now falls to one among more than 50 directorates within the Scottish Government under a single strategic board of eight Directors-General. These directorates remain a single entity with a combined back office, and so of necessity obliged to keep in lockstep one with another.

RPID has around 600 staff and maintains a local office presence at 17 locations across Scotland.

A smaller, distinct, public body (NDPB) with a strong focus on farming is the Crofting Commission. In 2012 this replaced the Crofters Commission, which had been established in 1955. However, due to its small size (less than 100 staff), the Commission is hugely dependent on back office support from the Scottish Government.

Forestry

FC (from 1919) – FCS and FES (from 1999) – currently SF and FLS (from 2019)

Nearly one fifth (about 6000 square miles) of Scotland is wooded, of which the publicly-owned National Forest Estate covers about one third, the latter strongly associated in the public mind with the Forestry Commission (FC), created in 1919 after the First World War. But in 2019 FC was replaced with two new bodies, Forest and Land Scotland (FLS) and Scottish Forestry (SF). These ‘Executive Agencies’ are part of the Scottish Government overseen by the SG Environment and Forestry Directorate, with distinct responsibilities set out in the Forestry and Land Management (Scotland) Act 20185 .

The Forestry Commission was a GB (England, Scotland, Wales) body and classed as a ‘non-Ministerial Department’, hence legally and constitutionally indistinguishable from central Government6. In the late 1990s, coinciding with devolution, FC Scotland was created, within which Forest Enterprise Scotland managed the national forests, on behalf of Scottish Government, as a semi-autonomous trading arm. However, below the surface branding these were still part of the same GB organisation, and often omitted from lists of Scotland’s public bodies. The new legislation in 2018 established SF and FLS replacing FCS and FES respectively, finally dismantling the previous GB structures and separate back office arrangements, and clearly listed as Scottish public bodies.

Both SF (with more than 200 staff) and FLS (with over 1000 staff) maintain a local office presence across Scotland.

Environment

NC (from 1949) – CCS (from 1967) – NCC and ITE (from 1973) – NCCS (from 1991) – DCS (from 1996) – SNH (from 1992) – currently NS

The Scottish Government’s statutory adviser on nature conservation is Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH). In 2020, this rebranded itself as NatureScot, but that is simply a trading name for SNH, which remains the formal legal entity, an NDPB, distinct from the Scottish Government which nevertheless provides most of SNH’s funding7.

The Nature Conservancy (NC) was a GB body established in 1949, split to form the Nature Conservancy Council (NCC) and Institute of Terrestrial Ecology (ITE) in 1973. In 1991, foreshadowing devolution, the NCC was split into separate country agencies for England, Wales and Scotland. The latter merged with the Countryside Commission for Scotland (CCS) from 1992 to form SNH. In 2010, SNH merged with the much smaller Deer Commission for Scotland (DCS).

NatureScot, with around 800 staff, maintains a local office presence across Scotland.

River Purification Boards, Scottish Office Air Pollution inspectorate – Currently SEPA (from 1996)

Another NDPB, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) is the public body overseeing air and water quality, so mainly focused on the control of urban and industrial pollution. But farming is an important source of nitrogen enrichment of watercourses, and also increasingly recognised as a source of greenhouse gases. So SEPA has a long-standing, and growing, engagement with rural land management. SEPA gains a large part of its funding from licence fees, the balance mainly from the Scottish Government. SEPA was formed from the amalgamation of Scotland’s River Purification Boards with air quality functions from the Scottish Office. Like SNH, SEPA maintains its own staff (totalling around 1,200) and back office capabilities, including its own local office presence across Scotland.

Both SNH and SEPA are sponsored by the Scottish Government Environment and Forestry Directorate.

A new body, Environmental Standards Scotland (ESS), was established in 2021 to fill the enforcement gap left by the withdrawal of the European Commission following Brexit. This is classed as a ‘non-Ministerial Office’ with a small staff depending on Scottish Government back office services. At the same time, a UK Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) was created. The interplay between these two and their respective Scottish and UK remits will be a major forum of debate for the future; there are other ‘cross-border public bodies’ with an interest in rural land management, for example the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), established in 1991 when the NCC was devolved. Through its early years, the JNCC was literally a joint committee of the three country conservation agencies, causing all manner of legal and bureaucratic complications until it was established as an NDPB in its own right, sponsored from Whitehall.

Outdoor recreation

Outdoor public access and recreation has been supported since the creation of the Countryside Commission for Scotland (CCS) in the 1960s. CCS was merged with NCC to form SNH in 1992 but, since 2002, two National Parks have been created each with its own National Park Authority, which are distinct NDPBs. The Cairngorms NPA and Loch Lomond and the Trossachs NPA have a broad range of functions including planning and development similar to the longer-established National Parks in England and Wales. They have found themselves increasingly grappling with outdoor recreation impacts on rural land management, such as wild camping and excessive visitor numbers at peak times8.

The National Park bodies are also sponsored, and largely funded, by the Scottish Government’s Environment and Forestry Directorate. They have tried to maintain their own back office services but (with around 100 and 170 staff respectively) they are too small to do so, and have been obliged to co-operate closely.

In May 2022, Scottish Government began a process of consultation on possible additional National Parks. It is not yet clear (2024) whether this will result in additional distinct public bodies.

Other bodies with land management interests

The Highlands and Islands Development Board, established in 1965, had a Land Use Division and was active in rural land management. In 1991, it was replaced by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), an NDPB which has (with some success) cultivated an interest in community land ownership.

After many years of discussion, another NDPB, South of Scotland Enterprise, was established in April 2020, with a similar role across the predominantly rural Scottish Borders and Dumfries & Galloway.

A small NDPB, the Scottish Land Commission with less than 20 staff, was formed in 2017.

Yet another NDPB, Historic Environment Scotland (HES) with more than 1600 staff maintains an active interest in impact of rural land management on archaeology. It replaced a predecessor, Historic Scotland, which was an agency within the Scottish Government.

Finally, Visit Scotland is the national tourism organisation for Scotland, also an NDPB with around 1500 staff. At first sight it has little to do directly with rural land management, but manages the Scottish Government’s multi million pound Rural Tourism Infrastructure Fund, grant aiding visitor access and facilities including footpath improvement.

Research institutes

MISR (from 1930) – HFRO (from 1954) – MLURI (from 1987) – SCRI (from 1981) – currently JHI (from 2011)

Despite the scale of public funding involved, most of these bodies are not listed in the Scottish Government directory of public bodies. There is an umbrella body for Scotland’s rural research institutes known as SEFARI9. This includes especially the James Hutton Institute (JHI) established in 2011. This company limited by guarantee10 has antecedents tracing back to the Macaulay Institute for Soil Research (MISR), established in 1930, the Hill Farming Research Organisation (HFRO), the Macaulay Land Use Research Institute (MLURI) and the Scottish Crop Research Institute (SCRI). Sitting apart from this framework is SASA11, a division of the Agriculture and Rural Economy Directorate within Scottish Government providing scientific services and advice in support of Scotland’s agriculture and wider environment, with around 100 staff.

Links to other GB research bodies, including for example Forest Research (previously part of FC) and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH – from 2002, previously ITE, see above) and universities are complex. Scotland’s Rural University College (SRUC), combining all Scotland’s farm colleges since 2012, previously provided extensive free farm advisory services, now offered mainly as commercial consulting, through a network of local offices.

East, West and North Colleges of Agriculture (from about 1900) – Scottish Agricultural College (from 1990), currently SRUC (from 2012).

Joining the dots

From time to time, over many years, attempts have been made to rationalise this complexity, but with minimal success. While co-ordination, even integration, is periodically called for, the best that has been achieved over the years is a mild form of co-operation.

In 1972, the Commons Select Committee on Scottish Affairs12 recommended a Land Use Council, leading to establishment of the more modest ‘Standing Committee on Rural Land Use’ (SCRLU) from 1972. From 1985 this was replaced with an informal Scottish Office ‘Departmental Group on the Countryside’, to tackle a series of controversies including afforestation impacts on nature conservation and wild geese impacts on agriculture. There was little enthusiasm for joint working in the early years of the Scottish Parliament, until a senior Scottish Government official13 set up the ‘On the Ground’ initiative in 2005. This was picked up by the incoming SNP administration in 2007 and rebranded as SEARS (Scotland’s Environment and Rural Services), leading to some co-location of the various local office networks. This was followed by several lower-profile initiatives, the most recent being the present SG-led ‘portfolio’ focus through an  ‘Environment and Economy Leaders’ Group’ (EELG)14. It isn’t clear to what extent (if at all) this group extends to farming policy; since that covers two thirds of rural land management by area, its ability to join the dots may well be seriously compromised!

Yet, in 21st Century Scotland, public services generally (and those involved in rural land management in particular) find themselves under sustained pressure, unprecedented since the Labour Government from 1945 created new farming, nature conservation and recreation policies. This pressure can be traced to the downward trajectory of budgets colliding with increasing demands, especially since 2010 and the narrative of ‘austerity’. But underlying trends set much earlier were never sustainable.  For example, in 1979, I joined a Nature Conservancy Council with less than 200 staff in Scotland; in 2010 its successor, Scottish Natural Heritage, had around 800.  The 1992 merger with CCS had brought in around 60, so let’s say numbers (and the work to be done, with associated budgets) increased around threefold over thirty years. Trends were similar across other public bodies, as new responsibilities and additional bodies emerged to address growing public expectations. The present plethora of public bodies, with overlapping responsibilities, varying autonomy and capabilities does not look at all sustainable; more kaleidoscopic change seems inevitable.

  1. National public bodies: directory – gov.scot (www.gov.scot)
  2. Otherwise the individuals involved carry unlimited personal liability.
  3. …but only by including more than 12,000 square miles of rough grazing which is desperately hard to farm…
  4. See: About our services (ruralpayments.org) – as viewed on 5th April 2024
  5. See: https://www.gov.scot/binaries/content/documents/govscot/publications/factsheet/2019/03/devolution-of-forestry-administrative-arrangements/documents/forestry-act-2018-administrative-arrangements/forestry-act-2018-administrative-arrangements/govscot%3Adocument
  6. …yet, in this case, maintaining its own separate back office services…
  7. From inception, SNH maintained its own back office and so has been a single largely self-contained organisation employing its own staff.
  8. …although these impacts are not restricted to the two National Parks…
  9. Scotland’s Environment, Food and Agriculture Research Institutes – see: https://sefari.scot/.
  10. See: https://www.hutton.ac.uk/sites/default/files/files/publications/Legal%20and%20Financial/Hutton-Articles-of-Association-Final-11-Feb-21.pdf . This constitution is similar to many non-governmental bodies such as, for example, the Woodland Trust.
  11. See: History of SASA | SASA (Science & Advice for Scottish Agriculture)
  12. …originators of the idea of ‘constructive tension’ between the various sectoral interests…
  13. Richard Wakeford, a previous Scottish Government Director General
  14. See: https://www.environment.gov.scot/about-us/our-partners/ accessed on 5th April 2024.