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.

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 parts of the UK or Scottish governments. So, always aware that things are never quite so neat and tidy, the key sectors nevertheless seem an obvious place to start.

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 farmed1, 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. In 2020, this financial support is disbursed by the Scottish Government Rural Payments and Inspections Division (RPID), part of the Agriculture and Rural Delivery Directorate currently providing ‘Rural Payments and Services’2.

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 of around 30 directorates within the Scottish Government under a single strategic board of six 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 maintains a local office presence across Scotland.

A smaller, distinct, public body 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, 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 are responsible to the Scottish Government’s Environment and Forestry Directorate, but form two distinct legal entities described as ‘executive agencies’.

The Forestry Commission was a GB (England, Scotland, Wales) body and classed as a ‘non-Ministerial Department’, hence legally and constitutionally indistinguishable from central Government3. 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. New legislation in 2018 established SF and FLS replacing FCS and FES respectively, finally dismantling the previous GB structures.

Both SF and FLS 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, described as an ‘executive non-departmental public body’ (NDPB) distinct from the Scottish Government, which nevertheless provides most of SNH’s funding4.

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 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 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), is being established to fill the enforcement gap left by the withdrawal of the European Commission following Brexit. At the same time, a UK Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) is being set up. The interplay between these two 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.

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 ‘executive 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 camping5.

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, because they are too small to do so, they have been obliged to co-operate closely.

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) which has (with some success) cultivated an interest in community land ownership.

A small new executive NDPB, the Scottish Land Commission, was formed in 2017.

Another executive NDPB, Historic Environment Scotland (HES) 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.

Research institutes

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

The current umbrella body for Scotland’s rural research institutes is known as SEFARI6. This includes especially the James Hutton Institute (JHI) established in 2011. Its antecedents can be traced 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).

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 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 Affairs7 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 official8 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)9. It isn’t clear to what extent (if at all) this group extends to farming policy; since this 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 rising 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 unavoidable.

  1. …but only by including more than 12,000 square miles of rough grazing which is desperately hard to farm…
  2. See: https://www.ruralpayments.org/ – as viewed on 5th October 2020
  3. …yet, in this case, maintaining its own separate back office services…
  4. From inception, SNH maintained its own back office and so has been a single largely self-contained organisation.
  5. …although these impacts are not restricted to the two National Parks…
  6. Scotland’s Environment, Food and Agriculture Research Institutes – see: https://sefari.scot/.
  7. …originators of the idea of ‘constructive tension’ between the various sectoral interests…
  8. Richard Wakeford
  9. See: https://www.environment.gov.scot/about-us/our-partners/ accessed on 5th October 2020.