By NFU Scotland's Environment and Land Use Policy Manager Andrew Midgely

The inaugural Arable Scotland event at Balruddery Farm near Dundee was set up in a way that encouraged dialogue and allowed attendees to learn about the latest research and trials that are underway.

Speaking on a panel about SEPA’s Crop Production Sector Plan, I recognise that this is not exactly high-octane stuff, but it is at the core of the policy work I do, and it really matters.

It matters because what SEPA is doing is seeking to change the nature of its relationship as the regulator with those regulated (farmers) and so its development of sector plans marks an important change in the role that SEPA plays with respect to farming.

Until now the relationship has been clear. SEPA is the regulator. Although this is a simplistic characterisation, it seeks to police and enforce environmental legislation to ensure that environmental ‘bads’ are prevented.

But in the sector plans, SEPA seems to be seeking to extend its role. It is now operating under a strategy that aims to achieve ‘One Planet Prosperity’. This idea starts from a recognition that if everyone in the world lived as we do in Scotland; we would need three planets and so to achieve sustainability we need to live within the means of our one planet.

Consequently, SEPA believes we need to see transformational change in environmental performance and a core concept, that sits at the heart of what SEPA is doing, is the idea of going ‘beyond compliance’.

This is where it becomes clear that the nature of the relationship between the regulator and the regulated is changing. SEPA will continue to police environmental legislation and will seek full compliance with the law, but it also wants to encourage all sectors to go beyond compliance.

It was this reframing of the relationship that led many members to tell us to tell SEPA to get back in its box. This was seen as mission creep, a job creation exercise that will simply end up costing the industry extra money or as SEPA empire building.

These are worries that we have communicated to SEPA and, to give SEPA staff credit, they have been listening and seeking to change their plans in order to reflect our concerns.

So where do things stand at present?

It’s fair to say that we remain to be convinced by the sector planning approach, but we are open to dialogue. When you look closely at what SEPA is seeking to achieve—a better quality environment—it is hard to argue against it.

A lot of the things that SEPA wants to achieve would reflect well on the industry; enhanced environmental performance could also potentially be a selling point for our produce. And SEPA is at pains to stress that going beyond compliance is entirely voluntary; it wants to emphasise the ‘win-wins’ of enhanced efficiency and profitability and environmental performance.

We do have concerns about how this new sector planning approach will be paid for and do not want to see the charging regime used as a way of funding SEPA’s expanding aspirations and this relates to a really important point about investing in building constructive relationships.

If SEPA wants to re-position itself as not only regulating the industry but also supporting the industry, then it needs to invest a huge amount of effort in building better relationships.

Launching Sector Plans on the industry, even if they say positive things, is not the way to do it.

I believe we saw an improvement in relations between the industry and SEPA after it adopted a slightly more personal and dialogue-based approach in diffuse pollution priority catchments. This approach involved site visits, discussion and advice on how to achieve compliance with environmental regulations and saw positive results.

But I appreciate that it took a huge amount of resources. Ultimately, though, if SEPA wants to build a new relationship with the industry it will have to put in the effort and find ways to support farming and not just police it.

A new relationship between the regulator and the regulated might be possible, and while we remain to be convinced, we are open to dialogue; it will be, I suspect, a sometimes difficult but ongoing conversation.

(This blog was originally published on