First Minister Nicola Sturgeon
24 November 2015
The rural parliament was established to ensure that the needs of rural communities were considered, debated and acted upon by government, by the wider public sector and by local communities themselves.
Last year’s event was a major success, and I welcome the fact that next year’s parliament – which we hope will be even more successful – will be held in Brechin. I’m sure that they will be great hosts.
For today’s rural summit, I want to do two things. The first – very simply – is to confirm that the Scottish Government broadly agrees with the five “asks” which you have just heard outlined. We believe that delivering them - in partnership with rural communities - will bring benefits for rural areas and for Scotland.
We will publish a detailed response before the end of the year, and as part of that, we will make it clear that we expect all public sector bodies to play their part in meeting our shared aims for rural communities.
The second thing I want to do – which will take a bit more time - is to set the Scottish Government’s ambitions for rural Scotland a wider context.
The Programme for Government which we published in September – sets out our intention to create a Scotland which is fairer, more prosperous, and which has more empowered local communities.
So I’m going to look at each of those aims – fairness, prosperity and empowerment – in turn.
Because each in different ways demonstrates the potential value of the rural parliament. Although the aims we have for rural areas are often the same as those for Scotland as a whole - what’s often distinctive, are the particular issues and challenges which rural areas face.
If you look at our ambitions for a fairer Scotland, for example, we know that in general – although there are genuine difficulties around measuring rural poverty - poverty rates seem to be lower in rural Scotland than in urban Scotland.
But there are some quite specific problems in rural areas. For example - and I know this was raised in Oban last year - in remote rural areas, more than 1 person in every 5 lives in extreme fuel poverty. In the rest of Scotland it’s fewer than 1 in 10.
Fuel poverty is something this government is determined to address – it’s scandalous that in a developed, energy-rich nation, there are people who cannot afford to heat their homes. So we are allocating almost £120 million this year to relieve poverty and improve energy efficiency across Scotland.
But we know that we need to do more for rural areas. That’s why we have established a Rural Fuel Poverty Task Force - to explore the specific challenges we face, and to guide future policies. It will report within a year with specific proposals which make it easier for people in rural areas to keep their homes warm.
Another example is housing. The Scottish Government is currently well on course to deliver our pledge of 30,000 affordable homes during this Parliament. That’s a record level since devolution. And one of our key commitments for the next parliament is to increase this still further, and deliver 50,000 affordable homes in the next 5 years.
But we know that there are very specific challenges relating to rural areas.
That’s why we have established a new rural housing fund. It’s open to community groups and rural landowners – meaning that they can take a more active role in meeting the housing needs of local communities.
Again, it’s a specific intervention targeted at a specific rural issue – it will help to reduce housing costs, and enable more people to live in rural areas.
Alongside our work to promote equality, we also want to build prosperity.
The two go together - a more equal society, where everyone can participate to their full potential, will lead to a stronger and more sustainable economy. And we need a strong economy to fund the public services we value so highly.
My view is that although rural areas face challenges, they also have great economic opportunities – maybe to a greater extent now, than at any time for many years.
It’s maybe worth providing some context for that statement. Tomorrow night, there’s a reception in the Scottish Parliament. It will mark the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Highlands and Islands Development Board – now Highlands and Islands Enterprise.
When that board was established, it was a time of great gloom about the economic prospects of the Highlands and Islands. The population of the area had been in decline for more than a century. Unemployment was higher than in the rest of Scotland.
Times have changed dramatically since then. In fact, the population of the Highlands and Islands is now at its highest point in more than a century. The area accounts for 4/5 of Scotland’s total population growth since the 1960s. Employment is higher than the Scottish average.
This area has a stronger, more diverse and productive economy than ever before.
There are still challenges. But the successes have been significant. And one thing which is contributing to those successes is that if you look at the key sectors in our national economic strategy – ones where we see great growth potential for the future - they are ones where rural areas are well placed to prosper. For example they include tourism, food and drink, renewable energy and life sciences.
So what we are doing is promoting those sectors – food and drink has been a huge success story in recent years, for example. And we are also providing the wider business support and infrastructure investment which will help rural communities to flourish.
Rural rates relief benefits more than 2,500 businesses across Scotland. It’s an important way of alleviating the extra costs companies can incur, and of helping the sustainability of the rural economy.
We’re making major investments in rural infrastructure. This autumn has seen the completion of the Borders railway – the longest new domestic railway line in Britain in more than a century.
We’ve also started work on the dualling of the A9 – our largest road infrastructure project for a generation. It will bring major economic benefits across the north of Scotland.
And the Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband project is currently making broadband available to approximately 7,000 properties every week. By the end of 2017, 95% of properties across Scotland will have access.
I’m going to spend a bit of time talking about that, since I know that it was a major issue in Oban last year.
To give some idea of how much we have achieved so far - 2 years ago, only 4% of homes in the Highlands could get superfast broadband. Now, it’s 59%. By the end of next year, that proportion will increase to 84%.
But – and this is a hugely important point – we see that as a staging post, rather than an endpoint. That’s why we have lobbied the UK Government to introduce a Universal Service Obligation for broadband – it’s commitment to do that is welcome.
And we have allocated £7.5 million to Community Broadband Scotland to work with local communities to reach the remaining properties in the Highlands and across Scotland.
That actually provides a very good example of the value of the rural parliament. Earlier this year, the rural parliament asked for more data about the Digital Scotland programme. It wanted greater transparency about which postcodes weren’t likely to be connected under the current plans.
That information is now starting to be released more quickly. It means that communities – if they’re not likely to be covered – can get on with developing alternative plans.
We’ve seen a good example today of what can be achieved by local communities here in East Lothian.
Community Broadband Scotland has just announced a grant of £150,000 to Humbie Lammermuir Community Enterprise - a non-profit venture which has been established to deliver broadband in the villages of Humbie, Fala and neighbouring areas.
The initial project – using wireless transmission - could connect up to 250 homes. It’s a good example of how Government funding, combined with local initiative, can make a major difference.
Improving digital connectivity doesn’t just boost economic opportunities; it transforms the way people live, work and learn. That’s particularly true in remote and rural Scotland – so we need to do everything possible to connect those areas.
And I know that the rural Parliament, as you have already shown, will be an important ally of the Scottish Government – and sometimes a very challenging ally – as we work to do that.
The grant to Humbie Lammermuir Community Trust demonstrates something else. It’s a good example of the fact that economic development requires more than central or local government investment. It’s often about local initiative.
That’s why – and this of course is a major theme of the 5 “asks” from the parliament - this Government is giving communities more power to take decisions about issues which directly affect them.
For example the Parliament passed a Community Empowerment Act earlier in the summer– among other things, it requires public bodies, including the Scottish Government, to consider how to engage with local communities.
We have also a target of ensuring that 1 million acres of land were in community ownership by 2020. We have set up a short life working group to help us to achieve that target. We have also introduced a Land Reform Bill, and we are trebling the size of the Scottish Land Fund, which supports community buy-outs.
And we are taking very specific steps to give more powers to islands and coastal communities. In September we published a consultation paper seeking views on specific proposals for an islands Bill.
We’re also ensuring that when Crown Estate lands are devolved to the Scottish parliament, the parliament will in turn devolve power to local communities.
We will consult widely on the best way of doing that. But we have already made it clear that Coastal and island communities will benefit from the net revenues resulting from offshore activities within 12 miles of their coast. It’s a further way in which we will ensure that local communities benefit from their natural resources.
It is consistent with a wider vision for Scotland – as a nation whose natural resources bring prosperity to every corner of the country.
The rural parliament has an important role to play in achieving that vision. It is also a further vital way of giving communities a stronger voice and a bigger say.
By coming together, we can discuss and address the distinct challenges and opportunities facing rural areas. We can ensure that local communities have a real say in the decisions that directly affect them. And we can take steps which will improve the prosperity and wellbeing of rural Scotland, and of Scotland as a whole.
So I’m delighted to speak here this afternoon; I wish all of you, all the best for a productive set of discussions; and I look forward to working with you in the months and years ahead.